In the United States, the month of May is observed as Mental Health Awareness Month. The program began in 1949 in an effort to better educate people on the effects, prevalence, and history of mental illness within our society. While these programs have done a lot to educate the general public on mental illness and have created far more awareness surrounding the issue as a whole, the effort is far from over. Even with over 50 years of annual month long awareness practices, mental illness continues to have a negative stigma associated with it in our global society today.
Stigmas often stem from being under educated on an issue. Because of the devastating stigma that remains bound to mental health issues, many people are too ashamed, embarrassed, or scared to seek guidance or treatment for their conditions. When untreated mental illness costs our economy billions of dollars a year and has an immeasurable effect on human longevity. There are numerous areas that mental health events like awareness month can benefit with the stigma reaching so broadly.
Mental illness as portrayed in the media has been a long standing issue. For many individuals, these depictions are some of the only examples of mental illness they have seen—which can be problematic. Oftentimes, the media will sensationalize either the most extreme or the most bizarre cases of mental illness. Whether it is in the news, on primetime television, or in major motion pictures, mental illness is often depicted in a way that is not entirely recognizable within our day to day lives. This sensationalism leads the general public to associate bizarre and newsworthy behaviors (such as the serial killers you see in horror films or the unstable patients you see treated by Dr. House) with mental illness as a whole. Of course, with greater awareness and stronger education on the matter, we learn that most individuals with mental illness can and do function normally within society. This negative spin that public media often puts on mental illness has harmful effects on everyone involved. Individuals struggling with mental illness fight this stigma while many unaffected remain ignorant to their own beliefs on the issue.
Mental Illness Stigma in Colloquialisms
We’ve definitely all heard the jokes and phrases that reside in our everyday vernacular as a society. It’s typically playground humor that is perpetuated by bad media, but nonetheless these sayings and phrases become something important. Phrases like “cuckoo”, “crazy town”, “the loony bin”, calling someone “bipolar” when they have a mood swing—these are the “little” things that shape our perception of mental illness. These jokes and insults may seem harmless, but really play an essential role in perpetuation a dangerous stigma. These jokes and sayings immediately associate mental illness with something negative; they argue that mental illness is both a joke and something to be ashamed of. This makes finding understanding and seeking help very difficult for some. Through these accepted colloquialisms, we as a society condone stigmatizing and insulting mental illness and all who suffer from it or with it. Interestingly, this point bleeds into my argument about mental health stigma within medicine and health insurance. People do not make jokes about cancer in the same way that they do about mental health issues—what does this imply?
Mental Illness Stigma in Health Insurance
Mental illness has long been a subject of contention in the medical world. As a society, we treat psychological illness and disease differently than we do physical illness or disease. Not only do everyday people view these entities as separate from one another, but in many ways so does the health care industry. Mental health parity has been an issue for many years. Simply put, mental health parity states that psychological conditions must be treated equivalently to physical illnesses. But, with even just our underlying mindsets setting the two apart from one another, convincing insurance companies and health professionals to consider them equivalent has been a challenge. Traditionally, private health insurance companies have severely limited mental health benefits. The reasoning behind this lies in the fact that psychological disorders and illnesses can be so difficult to specifically diagnose, making for difficult documentation from an insurance point of view. While measures have been taken to find mental health parity, there remains a stigma in many ways within the sector.
With greater awareness we can find better solutions for mental health issues. Many (if not all) of the mental health stigmas that remain prevalent in our society today are perpetuated by ignorance. With further education on mental health disorders, their effects on those who suffer from them, and their place within our society as a whole, we can better serve our entire community of individuals.
This guest post is contributed by Barbara Jolie, who writes for the online classes blog. Barbara Jolie is an avid writer and blogger and believes that education and learning are the best path to a better and stronger future. For questions or comments email her at barbara.jolie876[at]gmail.com.