A Realistic Way To Look At Mental Illness

Mental illness carries a lot of stigma.  People often hide their diagnosis or minimize their symptoms because they are afraid of the judgment that will follow.  It seems easier for many to suffer in silence than to have everyone else look at them as broken or crazy, as something to be feared or pitied.  Many people would rather struggle every day to function than to become a pariah or a joke.

Realistically, there is no shame in having a mental illness.  A mental illness is, in the simplest terms, an illness of the brain.  Our brain is just one of many organs in our body.  When another organ isn’t working properly, we see a doctor and get treatment.  No one is shamed for it because we understand that the body is a machine and that all machines have issues now and then.  The more pieces to a machine and the more functions it performs, the more likely that the machine might have an issue or break down from time to time.

Take the pancreas for example.  It is the organ that maintains the glucose levels in the body.  When the pancreas isn’t working properly, a person can become hypoglycemic, hypoglycemic, or diabetic.  All those conditions can be treated.  Nobody is shamed for having these conditions because we understand that sometimes organs do not work properly.  People go to a doctor and are given medications and treatments that will help improve their quality of life.

Take the heart. There are many conditions that affect the heart.  Heart disease is an umbrella term that includes all the disorders of the heart much like mental illness describes all the illnesses that affect the brain.  Yet there is no shame in talking about heart disease.  Food packaging proudly advertises that food is “heart healthy” and people are reminded regularly to take care of their heart so they can live a longer, healthier life.

The approximate overall cost of heart disease in the United States is 207 billion dollars every year.  That total includes the direct cost of treatment & medications, as well as the indirect cost of lost productivity.

(Based on: https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm )

In comparison, the combined direct and indirect cost of only SERIOUS mental illness every year is over 300 billion. That total does not even take into account moderate or mild mental illness, JUST the serious cases.

(Based on: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/cost/index.shtml )

Yet when it comes to mental illness, the room becomes so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.  You don’t see cereal boxes displaying that they contain nutrients for a healthy brain though so many of them do.  You don’t see advertisements recommending meditation to strengthen your brain like you do ones recommending walking and jogging to strengthen your heart.  The fact is – WE SHOULD.  The only advertisements we see regarding mental illness are the occasional commercial for a prescription illustrating that if a person feels broken, their medication might fix them.

The brain is just another organ in our body.  Like the heart, it is needed to survive.  The brain is the most complex organ in our body.  It controls so many things, from basic tasks to thoughts and emotions.  As the most complex organ in the body, it also has the highest chance to develop an issue.  According to the latest statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health, “1 in 5 adults in the U.S. —43.8 million, or 18.5%— experiences mental illness in a given year”.  Those numbers are staggering.  When you consider how many others are suffering in silence and haven’t spoken out or received treatment, you can only imagine how much higher those numbers might go.

(You can find NAMI’s mental health statistics at: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers )

With that many people affected, and so much money being spent on mental health treatment, it is clear that mental illness has become a crisis of epic proportions.  When the number of people affected by heart disease skyrocketed, it became clear that something had to be said and done.  Change was needed.  It is no different with mental illness.

Mental illness is the umbrella term to describe conditions that occur in the brain.  No more, no less.  There should be no shame when someone has a mental illness because it is no different than if they had diabetes or heart disease – only the organ affected is different.  No more, no less.

Mental illness needs to stop being that dirty little secret we are afraid to talk about.  The stigma needs to end.  We need to rally behind those with mental illness like we do other health conditions, encouraging them to speak up, speak out and receive help.  We need to stop letting stigma label those who are suffering.  We need to educate and to encourage wellness.

Like many other conditions that affect a person’s body and organs, mental illness can be treated.  It is ridiculous that so many people are untreated or undertreated because stigma has turned mental illness into a dirty word.

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