I saw an extremely sad news article and accompanying video on Facebook yesterday. It was about a 24-year-old mother who allegedly placed two of her three young sons in an oven and turned it on. Unfortunately, the two children died. After the mother was arrested and denied bail, her family members began to speak out, saying that she had battled mental illness for some time now and should be placed on suicide watch. Family members further explained that the young mother’s mental health had significantly worsened after a break-up with her children’s father.
The community is rallying around the bereaved father and his remaining son in a manner that makes me very proud; their efforts to ease their difficulty at this time are really commendable. I can’t imagine what this father, his son, and the other family members are going through.
Occurrences like this communicate to me that, although we’ve come a long way as a society as far as discussing and addressing mental health concerns goes (I plan to write a post about how mental health conditions used to be addressed soon), we still have an extremely long way to go. For the sake of providing mental stimulation and agitating the issue, here are a few ways that I believe our society’s perception of and dealings with mental health and the field of psychiatry can be improved:
Eradicate the Mental Illness Stigma
One of the best things we could do as a society to improve mental wellness, in my opinion, is to eradicate the stigma associated with mental health. Just today, I saw a person in a Facebook support group asking whether or not they should tell their boss about their psychiatric diagnosis. A few people said yes, and some said it would depend on whether or not the condition was affecting their performance, but the overwhelming majority of people said that they would not tell their boss about their diagnosis for fear of being fired or being treated differently. This is not OK.
Here’s another example of the damage that this unwarranted stigma inflicts: just this week, I had a potential patient call our office wanting to schedule a consultation for “mental health concerns.” When asked what concerns in particular, she utterly refused to disclose her diagnosis to our staff. As you can imagine, if this unwillingness to discuss mental health concerns for fear of being stigmatized, even by the people from whom you are seeking help, is permitted, it can lead to suboptimal care being provided to patients.
This unwarranted stigma, whether conscious or subconscious, is even more prevalent among minority groups than among the rest of society. This is largely due to a lack of education. After the mother in the story I mentioned was apprehended, her sister stated that she has been battling mental illness for some time now and should be placed on suicide watch. The fact that she had been battling mental illness and snapped after a breakup makes me wonder whether or not she was encouraged to seek therapy or any other interventions, and whether or not she had a safe place to discuss her thoughts and feelings. It is extremely rare for a person to commit a crime of that nature without premeditation; I can’t help but wonder how much of this could have been avoided had she felt and been assured that the right treatment for her unique concerns was available to her and had she been pointed in the right direction.
Because of this generalized ignorance concerning mental health and available resources, and because of the lack of communication outlets and safe spaces to discuss mental wellness (not to mention the perception and misconception among minorities of a person going to therapy, the psychiatric ward, or otherwise being treated for a psychiatric illness—even the term psychiatric has been stigmatized in many minds), many people neglect to seek treatment for their mental health concerns at the first sign of illness and they allow these concerns to worsen until far more invasive measures are needed.
Our society is in grave need of re-education concerning mental wellness and mental illness and this unwarranted stigma that surrounds mental illness is nonsensical and needs to be eradicated.
Stop Perpetuating Misconceptions
When people can say to someone “You don’t look like someone who has a mental illness,” you know we have a problem. As a society, we have formed an avatar of a prototypical mentally ill person and, if a person does not fit that mold, we convince ourselves that this person must be mentally and/or physically well. From this misconception was born numerous social media hashtags, probably the most prominent being #InvisibleIllness.
People assume that because they are not able to physically see your anguish, it must not exist. This is problematic because if I don’t truly believe that you are ill, it is difficult for me to extend empathy and compassion towards you. I characterize you as a faker or an attention-seeker and disregard your concerns and complaints. This also needs to end.
We need to stop perpetuating the misconception that mental illness has a certain look. The fact is that mental illness does not discriminate and the most healthy-looking person, given the wrong combination of life stressors and traumatic events, may find him- or herself battling mental illness for the rest of his or her life. It’s like that sometimes; you just never know.
Shift our Focus From Treating Symptoms
The fields of psychiatry and related psychiatric services would benefit greatly by shifting the focus away from treating symptoms like anxiety or depression and toward a more holistic, functional medicine approach. We would benefit from seeking out and addressing underlying factors that contribute to mental health diagnoses—factors such as heavy metal toxicity and genetic mutations.
As the Journal of Addiction Medicine so eloquently put it, “Anxiety is not a benzodiazepine-deficiency disease. It is possible to treat anxiety and insomnia without medicines of any kind, and it is possible to use medicines other than benzodiazepines for these common and serious mental disorders.” This quote can be applied to the other mental health conditions and psychiatric drugs as well. We truly need to get to the underlying causes of mental health conditions and attack this problem at its root.
We also need to place a renewed focus on prevention, on raising emotionally-intelligent and resilient children, on guarding prenatal influences and limiting prenatal exposures to toxic chemicals that can increase mental health risk in children. We need to protect our children from adverse childhood experiences and early trauma. The three-year-old boy I mentioned at the beginning of this post should never have had to witness his two younger brothers’ deaths, neither should any other children have to be a part of such horrible tragedies. We need to provide our children with everything they need to be mentally strong and to build a better tomorrow.
Now, What Will You Do?
If we honestly think about it, the way we treat a person who has broken their leg or developed rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is completely different from the way we treat a person with debilitating anxiety, but it really shouldn’t be. We don’t say to a person with RA, “Oh, just suck it up. We all go through this from time to time. Stop complaining and just walk it off.” Neither do we say to a person with RA, “Oh, this is just a phase; it’ll pass. All you need is a positive attitude!” Well-meaning though we may be, this is NOT how you comfort or encourage someone with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness.
All three of these problems can be summed up by saying that there is a general lack of proper education and that our society is in dire need of re-education surrounding mental wellness and mental illness. As I said on my How to Start Your Own Mental Health Blog page, if you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or any other mental health condition, or any other chronic illness, you have a story to tell. You have a wealth of knowledge in the form of your personal experience and you can use this knowledge to help end the stigma that so often surrounds psychiatric diagnoses.
Blogging about your journey is a great way to educate the public about the details of your condition. Let’s brainstorm: what other channels are available for educating the public about mental health? What has worked for you?