What does it mean to have a mental illness?
I know, kind of a loaded question. So, let me be more specific: What does it mean to have a mental illness in America?
Mental illness means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Some people think that it involves running naked in a public arena, sucking on rocks and barking at the moon. Others think it means hiding under the covers sobbing all day. To most people, it’s something that doesn’t affect your average day-to-day citizen, but rather affects the homeless, war veterans, and that weird goth kid you knew in high school. They believe that having a mental illness means you’re ready to commit suicide or a mass shooting at any moment.
The truth is that mental illness affects each and every one of us, and it’s very often quiet and alone. These range from things as common as depression and anxiety to the more severe conditions like bipolar disorder, PTSD, and schizophrenia. We recognize these as actual medical conditions that require treatment. But in America, there continues to be a persistent stigma that prevents those who need help from seeking it, and those who don’t understand it to further stigmatize.
America has an important lesson to learn: the brain just as important as any other organ, if not more, and deserves the same regular treatment as any other organ without the fear of being stigmatized. If we don’t change our attitude about mental health, we will continue to see perfectly functional members of society being inaccurately lumped into a “crazy” category that people love to ignore. It has to stop now.
For further insight on this important issue, we spoke to Shannon Heffernan, a reporter and producer for WBEZ and a speaker at this year’s Chicago Ideas Week talk “The State of Mental Health in America”.
So, what’s the state of mental health in America?
Shannon Hefferman: That’s a huge question. [laughs.] One of the interesting things about mental illness is that it’s something that most everybody at some point in their lives has been touched by, either directly by experiencing mental illness or by having a loved one who experienced a mental illness, severe or otherwise. And yet it’s something that we still think is happening to other people. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s had a hard time getting traction. Despite its prevalence, we don’t think of it as our problem.
How severe is the stigma against mental health and what can we do to combat it?
I think one of the biggest things is, in terms of media responsibility, it feels like the only time we talk about mental illness is after there’s been a mass shooting. It feels like the main connections we draw in the media with mental illness are when there’s a major act of violence. The vast majority of people who experience severe mental illness are not violent. So we need to be talking about it in a context outside of that. We don’t stop to think how stigmatizing it is [to talk about mental illness after a mass shooting], because that’s definitely not the portrait that we see here on the ground of the vast, vast, vast majority of people with mental illness.
How can we encourage those of us with mental issues to speak up and ask for help?
Are you talking about asking for help, or being public about mental health? Because those are two very different questions.
Let’s say both.
Well, to ask for help I think that one of the important messages that we in the media don’t always do a good job conveying is that we know there are treatments that work: medication, talk therapy, social services, etc. Those are pieces of it that [the media] could do a better job talking about. There are [methods] that work. One of the reasons we tend to ignore mental health is that we can fix physical health problems, but mental illness we sort of write off as, “Well that’s just how those people are going to be.” And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As far as people coming out publically about it, that’s a very tough call to make. On one hand, being public about mental illness for people does decrease the stigma but it can also cost people. So it’s a highly personal decision that people have to make.
How can we make mental health care more accessible and affordable as if you’re going to a primary physician?
We know we have a psychiatrist shortage in the United States. We know that psychiatrists are acutely missing in some areas more than others. Like, rural areas and more impoverished areas, it can be much harder to access a psychiatrist. So, it’s not only a question of coverage, it’s a question of ‘are the services you need there, are they where you need them, and are they there on the timescale that you need them in?’ When people seek out mental treatment, there’s a huge wait in services that can be detrimental.
It’s also important to ask: Do we have a culture that allows people to access these services without stigma? In some workplaces, you might rather say, “Hey, I need to leave at 5:30 to see a doctor” versus “I need to leave to see a psychiatrist.” It all comes down to financial access, where services are, and the cultural question of how comfortable do people feel accessing these services.
What can the media do to constructively put a spotlight on mental health issues so that we can help rid the stigma against it?
I think you’d talk about it like any other public health issue. You have to think about how that issue fits in. If you cover housing, you should ask questions like, “what’s housing like for people who experience mental illness?” If you cover education, you should be asking, “how are school services handling youth with mental illness?” I think it’s about incorporating it into other things we cover. Because we know there are many people in the population for whom this is an issue. It needs to be covered in multiple contexts.
Shannon, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us about this issue and we’re looking forward to your talk at Chicago Ideas Week.
Sure. Thank you. I’m really excited about it.
It will be a good long while before we tackle the issue of mental health in America. It’s deeply rooted in our culture that if we “feel sad” we should “toughen up and deal.”
But it’s far more than just feeling sad. It’s feeling sad all the time. It’s feeling tense all the time. It’s feeling like something is not right all the time. And perfectly well-intentioned people say things like, “We all have bad days,” never knowing that mental issues like depression can feel all-consuming and overwhelming.
It wouldn’t be productive to get mad at those people. What we need to do is stop associating mental health issues with major acts of violence like mass shootings. We need to stop thinking of depressed people as being simply being sad. We need to allow people who are experiencing mental illness in any of its forms to seek help without fear of shame. We need to evolve on this subject because all it does is hurt those who can’t afford to be hurt any longer. It’s time to end the stigma against mental health in America.