Mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans, a fact that may surprise you. You may hear that a friend, neighbor or family member is ill, but it likely will be discussed in hushed tones as if this kind of illness could have been avoided or perhaps indicates a serious aberration in a person’s constitutional or genetic properties. Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It is an illness. However, mental illness gets little of the respect and attention given to physical illness.

According to a June 2015 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, approximately 44 million adults “were classified as having a mental illness. Of these, 10 million had a serious mental illness.” Yet, we have been hesitant to discuss this crisis.

While people openly discuss physical ailments or challenges, including surgeries, symptoms, medicines and consequences, few are nearly as open about discussing depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or suicidal ideation. Having a faulty gall bladder, for example, seems to be more acceptable than having a slow neurotransmitter or biochemical imbalance that causes the brain to malfunction or function differently.

The stigma of having a mental illness has improved over the years. Today, advocacy groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nami.org, and Stamp Out Stigma, stampoutstigma.com, are working to shed light on this critical issue. The message, as stated by the latter is simple: “Mental illnesses and substance use disorders — just like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes — are treatable health issues. Stigmas linked to mental health and addiction often keep people from seeking the help they need — yet for those who do, recovery is possible.” And their mission, which is easily embraceable, is “to defeat the obstructive nature of mental illness and addiction stigma.”

Today more and more people talk openly about the problems life has presented them and their emotional responses to those problems. Depression seems far more acceptable now and is no longer considered a personality defect or a character weakness. Anxiety disorders are recognized and respected as a condition anyone can develop and viewed as successfully treatable. Bipolar disease has been depicted in popular movies like “Silver Linings Playbook,” a feature in which Bradley Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of someone living that diagnosis. Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his portrayal as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, in “As Good As It Gets.” These mainstream movies helped shine a light into the dark corners of mental illness. Our fears were quelled as Cooper and Nicholson invited audiences to look beyond the label of a mentally ill person.

Years ago, patients would sometimes ask for a private entrance/exit for my office and requested to not sit in the waiting room. True story: a male client in my office during his lunch hour grew nervous as his session ended and asked if he could use the back exit. He said, “I really can’t be seen in here. I’d get fired.” I showed him out and went to get my next client … his boss.

Today, people realize that being in therapy indicates that you are working to know yourself better, working through issues so you can engage in the world and with the people in it in a healthier and more rewarding manner. This is a healthy shift. How can we overcome the stigma associated with mental illness? Talk about it. We can each become more knowledgeable about mental health and talk to others about it. We can also support the efforts of organizations such as NAMI, Stamp Out Stigma and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org. And if you recognize that something is “not quite right” with you or a loved one, speak out. Seek help from your medical professional. Don’t allow your loved one to suffer in silence. Don’t allow yourself to suffer in silence.

This month, AY Magazine is publishing a Mental Health Guide, which addresses this critical issue and includes information about mental health, including addiction and suicide; programs that are available to Arkansans; and personal accounts of individuals who have overcome conditions such as substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. We hope you’ll obtain a copy of this valuable resource.


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