A Wake-Up Call to Defeat the Stigma of Mental Illness and Mental Health Treatment

Psychologist with patient
Blog Brent L. Saunders

Like all of us, I was shocked and heartbroken to hear about the tragedy in Orlando last weekend. We all send our heartfelt condolences to the victims, families and loved ones of the victims.  Since the news broke, there has been a heated conversation around mass shootings and how to stop them from happening – increased gun control measures, a need for tougher response to terrorism, and stricter immigration policies.  I’m not looking to address those issues here.  There have also been open discussions about mental health and mental illness, whether related to the traumatic stress of the living victims and bystanders, the health and well-being of the survivors, or even the mental state of the alleged killer.

We have to be open to discussing all of the issues.  But, I don’t think the discussion of mental health and mental illness is getting enough air time, especially the need to destigmatize mental health treatment and mental illness itself.

Victims and survivors will need mental health assistance – and there are many wonderful organizations dedicated to providing that assistance in times of need.  In some cases, the trauma of an event like this can trigger a person to seek assistance for the first time and identify or diagnose a treatable condition.  When people are battling mental illness in their life, it carries with it stigma and deep isolation. The stigmatization of mental illness is so great that people sometimes don’t seek help until it is too late, believing there is no place to turn. Where untreated mental illness contributes to acts of despair or violence -- whether against others or against self -- my heart breaks. With all of the available options for treatment and assistance, and the successes of modern medicines and techniques, there are no excuses.

When someone is diagnosed with or is being treated for cancer, often society gathers around them to support them in their time of need. Not so for mental illness or mental health treatments.  People living with these illnesses or seeking treatment for mental health concerns can feel stigmatized by society with little understanding of the struggle they face.

I want that to change.

Can a moment like this serve as the long-needed wake up call for each of us to understand the need to destigmatize mental health treatment and mental illness itself?

There is good work being done by many to support efforts to address mental illness and erase the stigma of mental health treatment. In Washington, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 2646 with broad bipartisan support to modernize U.S. mental healthcare. And, in the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has approved  S. 2680 cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators. These bills would help families dealing with mental illness, authorize suicide prevention programs, address shortages in the mental health workforce, support investment in early intervention programs and strengthen community crisis response systems.

And the National Association of Mental Illness, or NAMI, has championed the Stigma free pledge, challenging individuals, companies, organizations and others to learn more about mental illness, to see a person for who they are and take action on mental health issues.

I long for the day when the stigma of mental illness has been erased, and where people feel as free to seek and utilize mental health treatment resources as they do to visit their dentist or rheumatologist. We can all do more to aid in this effort, and I would call on you to join me in taking NAMI’s pledge to erase the stigma and raise awareness. You can take the pledge by visiting the following link: http://www.nami.org/stigma#sthash.MjYlgesR.dpuf.

By taking this step, we can all help bring mental illness one more step out from the darkness so that those affected by it may receive the kind of compassionate care they deserve.