In early history, mental illness was thought to be the work of demons, inhabiting a body for some mysterious reason. The standard operating procedure would be to hand them over to the church for exorcism. In fact, in many cultures, mental illness was thought to be some kind of punishment that required religious intervention. Even after we moved to a more scientific reason for mental illness, the mentally ill were looked down upon and eventually, institutions were built to house them, no so much for their wellbeing but to keep them away from the public’s view.
It wasn’t until Dorothea Dix pushed for better living conditions in the 1840s, that mentally ill patients were given the higher standard of care that everyone deserves. Further advancements in medicines to treat mental illnesses made it possible to move many patients back home to their communities to live.
Unfortunately, no matter how much we advance in the treatments available to help patients, the stigma of mental illness remains. People with mental illnesses are seen as mentally weak or even deceitful about their illness.
This prejudice can cost people their job, a safe place to live, adequate healthcare, and even the people they love. It can cause them to be arrested. More than half of the inmates in jail and prison have some kind of mental illness.
The stigma is all around. Miss a week of work with the flue and you may get a cake from your coworkers upon your return. Miss a week of work because you’re so depressed that you can’t get out of bed and you’ll be lucky if you still have a job.
The stigma isn’t merely external. For many people, their mental illness is a deep shame and guilt that they hide from others. They self-medicate with drugs and alcohol which is why substance abuse issues go hand-in-hand with mental illness.
It may be a slow process but we are making progress eliminating the stigma. We’re finding success in treating various types of mental illness. It wasn’t until 2008 that the federal government mandated that insurance companies offer mental health coverage, and although the coverage is still rife with problems, more people than ever are seeking psychological help for their illness. High school guidance counselors do much more than guide kids into getting into college, they help kids who may have mental issues navigate high school and determine how the school can accommodate them. Celebrities who become voices for mental health issues show people with mental illness that they are not alone but, more importantly, they show the world that people with mental illness are no different than anyone else and can succeed in life. We may still be a long way from full-on acceptance but the more mental illness is in the spotlight as something that is common and that people who have mental illness are not at fault, the better the chances of eliminating the stigma once and for all.
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