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Mental illness: the stigma that shouldn’t be
Posted: May 6, 2009
Last Updated: May 6, 2009

Mental illness has been labeled one of the most unjust stigmas of our time. It is estimated that mental illness will strike over 30 percent of the population sometime during their life. The remaining 70 percent of the population will be affected by the mental illness of a family member or friend. The staggering numbers of one in four being directly affected by mental illness has not removed the stigma associated with this serious illness. People continue show a sense of fear and shame about mental illness and those it affects.


In our Age of Reason, it is strange that society tends to forget that the brain, like any of our internal organs, is vulnerable to disease. Though mental illness is more apparent in outward behavior than liver disease or diabetes, it is still a disease, and doctors have spent the last century helping us understand, treat and cure mental illness.


Scientists have worked tirelessly to learn more about the brain, but many of the brain’s functions still remain a mystery. Though science has determined that many mental illnesses are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, it is not known exactly how the brain malfunctions. Many of these chemical imbalances may be inherited or caused by environment or even substance abuse.


Unfortunately, all the time and effort modern science has invested in understanding mental illness, it has not carried over to the public’s understanding of this disease. There still remains a sense of fear, shame and guilt towards mental illness and those affected by it.


According to the previous U.S. Surgeon General, in the first ever report on mental illness in 1997, “By 1996, a modern survey revealed that Americans had achieved a greater scientific understanding of mental illness. But increased knowledge did not defuse the social stigma.”


The Canadian governmental health organization, Health Canada, has found throughout the world, there is “a serious stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness…Arising from superstition, lack of knowledge and empathy, old belief systems, and a tendency to fear and exclude people who are perceived as different.”


What must be done to combat the stigma associated with mental illness? People must be willing to challenge their basic assumptions and fears about mental illness. Educating people about the nature and causes of mental illness is essential to increasing understanding about this disease. But as a society, we must question the perception that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent. This perception is one of the main misconceptions that persist about people with mental illnesses.


In truth, people with mental illness are less likely to commit a violent crime than the general population. It is only because the media persistently sensationalizes crimes committed by those with mental illnesses or a history of mental illness that this myth continues to pervade our society. These sensationalized reports obscure the truth about mental illness. The real truth is people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent acts than the perpetrators.


Education and awareness are one of the first steps our society can take to combat this stigma. Every person in the U.S. has had or knows someone afflicted with mental illness. By educating ourselves on the facts of mental illness, its causes and its treatment, we can begin to see that it is a disease, a disease that requires understanding and support along with treatment.


By casting the stigma from mental illness, we can save thousands of lives and hundreds of hours of agony for people with this illness, because they will seek help earlier, instead of hiding in the shadows and hoping their illness will just go away.


To learn more about mental illness and how to treat it call Border Area Mental Health Services. To reach Border Area Mental Health Services in Grant and Hidalgo Counties, call 388-4412; in Catron County, call 533-6649 for referral; in Luna County, call 546-2174.  For CRISIS, call 538-3488 or outside Silver City, call 1-800-426-0997.


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© 2008 by Border Area Mental Health Services and Putting the Web to Work. Front-page photo copyright by Bob Pelham, Pinos Altos Cabins, and used by permission. All rights reserved. For the privacy and comfort of our clients and staff, the photographs used in this site are representative and do not show specific individuals associated with BAMHS.