May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness affects 60 million Americans every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). This means that 1 in 4 Americans will be affected by some form of mental illness. Yet, despite its prevalence, the issue of mental illness often remains a taboo subject. This is likely due to a number of factors, including:
* Ignorance about mental illness;
* Misconceptions about mental illness and the mentally ill;
* Misrepresentation of mental illness in the media; and
* The ongoing nature of research in the mental health field.
I think the biggest obstacle to an open dialogue about mental illness is the misconceptions that most people have about mental illness and the mentally ill. These misconceptions stem from not only general ignorance on the subject of mental illness but also stem from the way mentally ill people are portrayed in television, movies, and even news media outlets.
As a person living with schizophrenia, I have encountered many misconceptions about mental illness. One common misconception is the idea that mentally ill people are somehow responsible for their own mental illness. Another equally damaging misconception is the idea that mentally ill people can “snap themselves out of it and be normal” if they want to and are willing to try hard enough.
Both of the misconceptions that I mentioned ignore a fundamental truth about mental illness: mental illness, like any health issue, is not something anyone would choose. Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion, or income level. Successfully managing a mental illness does require acknowledging that there is a health issue present. However, just as diabetics cannot will their diabetes away, mentally ill people cannot will their depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia, etc. away either.
While much is still unknown about the nature of mental health and mental illness, we can all do our part to promote awareness by staying informed and combatting misconceptions when we encounter them. Also, if you know anyone affected by mental illness, show compassion and be an advocate for him or her. Living with a mental illness can be extremely isolating, but it can really help someone to know they are not alone.
For more information on mental illness, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org