Will the mental health stigma ever end?

My calendar today says it’s Aug. 8, 2012. That’s more than a decade into the 21st century. So why does it still often feel we’re back in the Dark Ages when it comes to mental health?

The latest evidence that the stigma surrounding depression and substance use remains alive and well was demonstrated this week in the petty politicking of Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca, Minn., who portrayed Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton as a pill popper and “scary.”

You can say this for the critics: They were immediately all over Parry like glue on a cheap campaign bumper sticker. Maybe there’s more enlightenment out there than I think.

But would that this were about politics alone.

I don’t know Sen. Parry, I wasn’t at the Brown County Republican fundraiser where the remarks were made, and I wouldn’t presume to guess what he was thinking. But given that Gov. Dayton has been open about his depression and alcoholism, both of which have been treated, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a barb aimed squarely at the “weakness” implied by taking medication for a mental health issue.

And it’s shameful, because the last thing we need is to perpetuate the negative attitudes and judgments that often make it so hard for people to get help.

I had the opportunity last week to visit with some folks at Chippewa County Montevideo Hospital and Medical Clinics, here in west central Minnesota, about a community survey they’re launching this month to learn more about local attitudes regarding mental health and substance use.

The health providers in Montevideo have been working hard in the past few years to get better at identifying people who may have issues with depression and unhealthy substance use and connecting them with sources of help. What they’ve discovered, however, is that it’s often difficult to even begin the conversation. Patients are uncomfortable talking about it; sometimes doctors are uncomfortable too.

It’s hoped that the survey will give Montevideo health providers a better understanding of how their community feels about depression and substance abuse and lead to some strategies that will help.

People don’t get better when these issues stay in the closet. But to admit to being depressed, or to having a problem with alcohol, is to risk opening up oneself to negative judgments by the misinformed. The fact that a public figure would even go there – and on the record, no less – makes it painfully clear that the fear of being stigmatized is well founded.

Consider a poll conducted in 2004 in Tarrant County and Fort Worth, Texas, that found two out of five of those surveyed believed anyone with a history of mental illness should be barred from public office, more than 40 percent believed major depression was the result of a lack of willpower, and fully 60 percent thought “pulling yourself together” was an effective treatment for depression. Or a 2009 study in the Medical Care journal that concluded fear of stigma and how their parents would react was a major reason why adolescents didn’t seek treatment for depression. Or recent research suggesting that one in three U.S. soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome doesn’t seek treatment because of the stigma.

Really, the Parry incident shouldn’t be worth the ink being spent on it, except for one thing: the message that is sent by looking the other way.

Untreated depression and substance abuse take a toll on people’s lives, on their quality of life and their human potential. They take a toll on society. The consequences are serious indeed: Of the thousands of Americans who die by suicide each year, the vast majority have an untreated or ineffectively treated mental illness, most commonly depression.

Can we afford to allow the misinformation and stigma to continue? I don’t think so. Please get the facts and get educated. If you can’t or won’t, then at least have the grace to just keep quiet.

2 thoughts on “Will the mental health stigma ever end?

  1. I agree, as well. And will add, the consequences of untreated mental issues are evident not only in the number of suicides, but also, I believe, in some of these cases where “gunman opens fire on crowd.” No doubt that an underlying cause of many of those scenarios is depression, or some other mental issue. Which is really sad knowing that events such as the Colorado shooting could have been avoided if the suspect had gotten help. Luckily I know a lot of enlightened people, and I also know many who are “in the dark.”

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