I am not a mental case. I am not contagious. I feel and I think. I am your neighbor, your pastor, and your nurse. I am your coworker, your professor, and maybe even one of your closest friends. I have a serious mental illness, but that does not make me a danger to society, and it does not stop me from having meaningful relationships. My mental illness will never stop me from living my life.
What stands in my way of living the same life as you is the stigma that you have placed on me; the prejudicial attitude that causes you to assume I will never be as good, smart, or capable as you. I am here today to give a voice to the 450 million people around the world who suffer from a mental disorder but are forced to keep quiet in order to avoid being isolated from the world.
Mental disorders are more prevalent than cancer, diabetes, and even heart disease. Mental illnesses do not discriminate– they can affect anyone - men, women, and children of every age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Stigma has been undeservedly nailed to the chest of each and every person suffering from psychiatric illnesses.
If you became sick you would go to the doctor, right? You would expect to receive whatever treatment your doctor deemed necessary for your diagnosis. Once you were healthy again, life would go on as usual. Here’s the thing - I am sick. I need to visit a doctor, and I need to follow a treatment plan that will allow me to live a healthy life. So if it is just like receiving a prescription for antibiotics to treat an infection, why are you judging me and making it so hard for me to get the help that I desperately need?
Society has created a stigma.
Across the nation, the public has decided that people with mental illness are hard to talk to, unpredictable, and dangerous. But what the public refuses to accept is that when a person is properly treated by medical professionals, most side effects of his or her illness can be controlled. If treatment can allow a person to live a “normal life,” why are so many people still left untreated? Is society uncomfortable accepting mental disorders as true diseases?
This stigma has created fear.
What is there to fear? Some might argue it is the potential danger a mentally ill person could cause, or how unpredictable the person could become. But the truth is that we fear the unknown; the lack of familiarity with mental illness is what causes the prejudices and stigmas that chase after so many undeserving people on a daily basis.
For years I fought with myself. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need to get help and that there would be a day when I would magically wake up normal. I tried to hide my compulsions, laughing at people when they told me my OCD was out of control. I would sit in the bathroom stall to avoid letting anyone see me fight my anxiety. I blamed my dramatic mood swings and irritability on either not enough sleep or too much caffeine. I woke up every morning and put a mask on so that society would accept me and think I was normal.
Fear drives people into isolation.
Isolation assumes many forms. It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear and stereotyping. It stands in the way of people trying to seek help for fear that others will hear of their diagnosis. For our society to improve access to care and achieve urgently-needed knowledge, isolation must no longer be tolerated and an educational program needs to be implemented.
Something needs to change.
How do we erase this fear of the unknown? We replace all of the fears and assumptions with knowledge. We educate society so that they will become familiar with the facts surrounding mental illness and how controllable it is. When we increase familiarity, we lessen the chances of people being unfairly driven to isolation and robbed of their chance to achieve their goals.
It all starts with education.
Although many organizations are beginning to raise awareness and jump-start anti-stigma campaigns, they are forgetting to implement one very important tool: contact. Individuals need to be provided with an interactive board of mentors whose members include a combination of those diagnosed with mental illness, health professionals trained in the area, and all others who support the acceptance of mental health. One-on-one interaction with the uneducated members of society will provide contact and exposure to the prevalence of mental illness, and in time allow those with these prejudicial attitudes the opportunity to see that having a mental illness is not a death sentence.
By replacing thoughts of those who fear the unknown with educational information, this anti-stigma campaign will allow those who are suffering in silence to come out of isolation, be accepted by their peers, and receive the medical help that they so desperately need. Receiving the right kind of treatment is the only way that they can live a fulfilling life.
Together we can stand up to the stigma and stomp it out of existence. We will reverse the cycle and provide every single person the opportunity to reach his or her dreams and live a life worth living.