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Beall: Ending the mental health stigma

BY MIKE BEALL | NOVEMBER 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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It happens every time there’s a mass shooting. Politicians talk in vague rhetoric about how the mental-health-care system is broken and television media will have discussions on how to stop these, crazy people. “Crazy people” — they might not say these exact words, but this is the implication at the core of the debate. 

But victims of mental illness are not “crazy people,” they are victims of a disease or diseases just as any patient in a hospital. Contrary to popular belief, victims of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any mental diseases are statistically not any more violent than non-sufferers. In fact, the exact opposite is true. A study from Northwestern University found that individuals with severe mental illness were six to 23 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than individuals from the general population.

Thankfully, new regulations may help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Under a new health-care rule announced by the Obama administration last week, insurers will now be required to cover mental illness and substance abuse. The law isn’t perfect, and there are loopholes that could leave out tens of millions of Americans, but under the new rules mental illness has the same co-pays and deductibles as any physical illness. 

The new rules are just the first step toward reversing some misperceptions about mental illness. Unfortunately, there are still people who don’t see mental illness as being real or deserving of the same support as physical illnesses. It is not uncommon for sufferers of mental illness to refuse treatment for fear of being mocked and ridiculed. 

Mental illnesses are not something that someone can just get over. Scientific evidence clearly shows that mental illness is based in biology. Brain scans and other studies can show the differences between the brain chemistry of sufferers and the general population. Mental illness is a brain disease just like a stroke, a tumor, or dementia. There is no reason to separate mental illness from other brain disorders.  Societal attitudes and individuals who see mental illness as a failure of self-discipline only add to the difficulties of sufferers. 

The range of mental illness is vast, and even individuals with the same diagnosis can have very different experiences. It can be difficult to understand mental illness as an outsider looking in and without physical manifestations of pain it has historically been easy to ignore or give bad advice (i.e., get over it) to a sufferer.

Even major depression can be very difficult to understand despite almost everyone feeling sad once in a while. Major depression is not just a sad mood that can be snapped out of. It is a serious biological illness that can plague sufferers for years, if not their whole lifetime.  Major depression can have many causes, including other mental illnesses, which only complicate treatment, but often the cause is naturally low levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.  This is not just something you can get over.

Mental illness needs to be treated just like any disease. The new rule changes are helpful, but all they really do is help prevent sufferers from incurring more debt.  Real change will come from ending the social stigma attached to mental illness.


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