Compared to other countries, the U.S. is definitely more accepting of mental health issues however, there remains a strong negative stigma associated with mental health issues. For anyone who has ever been treated for anxiety, depression, even flying phobias, your medical records will indicate that you were treated for a mental illness and thus labeled as uninsurable according to the health insurance companies. Health care is not considered a human right in the U.S., the land of the free. I will table my tirade and comments on the U.S. health care system for another time. It is these types of obstacles that feed into the negative stigma of mental illness and further dissuade people from seeking help.
For some reason, it is seen as a sign of weakness to seek help for a wide number of things from help with parenting, relationship issues, depression, job issues, etc. And that is just naming a very limited few of the issues that civilians may battle. How about individuals who work in high-stress jobs or jobs that may require the taking of another life or exposure to the absolute worst examples of humanity – i.e. air traffic controllers, police officers, firefighters, nurse, doctors, paramedics, and of course, our soldiers? If an individual who works as an administrative assistant views seeking counseling for anxiety as a sign of weakness, what about the individual who is expected to be the brave ones, the first responders, the defenders of freedom, the life savers? We need to eliminate this stigma.
Some may argue that they see no problem. It is up to an individual to take care of himself/herself. I disagree. This stigma has resulted in high unemployment for groups of individuals who may be viewed as mentally ill or unstable, which leads to high poverty rates and homelessness for these individuals (as a result of joblessness and inability to obtain health insurance to cover medical care and possible medications), and in a small number of cases, individuals may resort to violence. Unfortunately, the media plays a terrible role in all of this. By sensationalizing the small number of incidents of violence perpetrated by someone who may be suffering from a mental health issue, the media has stoked the fire of fear in our society against those who are suffering from mental health issues, even though most of them are non-violent. Further, by portraying only the violent symptoms that some (not all) soldiers, veterans, first responders, and others who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), these men and women often find themselves discriminated against in anything from finding a job to adopting a child.
Some politicians have called for legislation to be passed that restricts the rights of individuals who suffer from mental illness. What they do not seem to understand is that mental illness is not a fixed, static category of disorders and conditions. The official classification system is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Since its first publication in 1952, it has undergone several updates and revisions. Over the years, conditions have been added and removed from the classification system of mental illness. For example, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until it was officially removed from the classification in 1986. Another example is with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) which officially appeared in 1980 but partially appeared in 1968 under a different designation (hyperkinetic reaction of childhood). The next DSM will be released this month with several changes including the addition of gambling disorder and changes in the definition of PTSD. See the American Psychiatric Association website for more information.
The bottom line is that mental illness is viewed as a sign of weakness, a form of deviance from social norms, and treated with fear and avoidance. There is no shame in asking for help. The world has changed dramatically and even civilians may experience traumatic events that may forever change their outlook and mental health. Do we punish those who witness acts of violence? In theory, no, in practice yes and it is done through the continued discrimination and negative portrayal of mental illness. This needs to stop and the sooner the better. If the media insist on sensationalizing mental illness, they MUST get their facts straight and present all of the information, not just what will attract the most viewers and be considered the most scintillating. Society must be shown and educated about mental health issues. We need to spread the news about how inaccurate the media’s portrayal and resulting societal treatment of the mentally ill is damaging our society, not only socially, but within the judicial, economic, and education institutions among others. We need to promote tolerance and respect not fear and ignorance. And for those battling with what may be considered mental health issues, remember that you are not alone.
Here are some links that may be of interest: