Editor’s note: If this article means something personal to you, either because you struggle with a condition or know someone who does, we’d like you to know that you’re not alone. The first step to getting better is talking to people about your ordeal, especially people who have experienced the same. But it is also important to seek medical help in the form of therapy. Mental illness is not your end, and you’re not at fault for having it.
For as long as history’s recollection, mental illness has received very little slack from society. This though approximately 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 youth (aged between 13-18 years old) living in the USA have experienced (severe) mental illness at some point in a year. That’s a staggering 43.8 million adults and 10 million adolescents. Even though mental illness is so prevalent on a national and global scale, there’s still a social stigma attached to it.
Generally, society is scared of, or appalled by mentally ill people. This is because they’re viewed as either being dangerous to themselves and (mainly) others, or are just making it up. Not only does this fear or hesitancy make it incredibly challenging to integrate mentally ill people back into society, but it also obstructs diagnosis and treatment as people are too afraid of admitting they have a problem.
The result is that mental illness goes largely ignored by society and – worst of all – those who suffer from it. However, ignoring mental illness won’t make it go away. To show how devastating the act of ignoring mental illness can be, here are a few statistics of the impact it has on society at large.
While most people would think that mentally ill people are a danger to society, it’s quite the opposite. Mental illness is more dangerous to those suffering from it. They’re more likely to be neglected or physically injured by society or themselves. In 2006 the Institute of Medicine published a fact sheet showing that, “the contribution of people with mental illness to overall rates of violence is small.”
On the other hand, the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that people with mental illness are more likely to suffer from premature death than those who are mentally fit. It’s expected that a person who has a mental condition has a life expectancy of 10 to 25 years. The main causes of death are usually cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious diseases, but diabetes and hypertension are also responsible for high mortality rates.
Suicide is also very prevalent among those with mental disorders. People suffering from schizophrenia, for example, are 12 times more likely to take their lives.
In terms of receiving the appropriate health care, WHO further goes on to argue that mentally ill people receive a lower standard of medical care compared to the general population. To make matters worse, society is less likely to employ mentally ill people, and more likely to isolate and exclude them. This means they can’t seek appropriate care due to financial and geographic limitations.
But this is just the tip of the ice-burg – isolation and unemployment are not the only things they have to endure. In recent years cases of mentally ill people being shot and killed by police have come into the spotlight. You’re 16 times more likely to be shot by law enforcement if you suffer from mental illness according to the Virginia based Treatment Advocacy Center. The problem lies in a lack of police training and a deficit in treatment practices and policies – both of which can be linked to society’s general outlook on mental illness.
Some may still argue that those who are mentally ill pose a threat to society, pointing to instances such as mass shootings as an indicator of how much we shouldn’t trust them. However, they’d be wrong. According to research published in the Am J Public Health journal, there’s no way of conclusively linking mental illness to gun violence. In 1994 the American Psychiatric Association revealed that most violence, especially gun crimes such as mass shootings, was perpetrated by those who are mentally healthy. That means that most people who suffer as a result of mental illness are those who suffer from it, and not those surrounding them.
However, this doesn’t mean that mental illness doesn’t hurt those who are mentally healthy. Family and friends are usually emotionally impacted by a member who is affected. This can be due to communication breakdown and behavioural changes or the person’s unexpected death through suicide or other means. As a result, families are usually torn apart as they struggle to reel in from the ordeal. This in itself can have a ripple effect, as others might develop depression or genetically inherit a condition, abuse substances and ultimately suffer the same fate. It never goes away.
What this all means is that there needs to be change in the way society perceives mental illness. Rather than labelling people mad, insane and unstable, we need to start treating mental illness like we would any physical injury or conditions such as cancer. Those who suffer from conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or split personality disorder to mention a few, shouldn’t be made to feel abnormal and incapable of living within society. This only plays into their own and society’s narrative that they should be isolated.
Apart from a change in governmental policies and the need to improve provision of medical help, there should be more education around the impact of mental illness. Such initiatives should show how much those who suffer from it are not a danger to society, but have the capacity to add a great deal of value to it. Ignoring mental illness won’t make it go away, and facing it won’t as well (people will continue to experience forms of mental illness), but the latter has the ability to make it greatly manageable and treatable.
If at any point in time you (or anyone you know) feel like hurting themselves, please contact the following number immediately:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255