Mental Illness: A Society of Stigma
I would like to start this essay by saying that mental illness is an issue that hits extremely close to home. Both of my uncles on my fathers side developed schizophrenia in their 20’s. One of them, upon being diagnosed, committed suicide. This happened before I was born, but the fall-out is still visible in my family. The other now lives in a home for those with mental illness. He is on medication, which helps with many of the symptoms, and has been an important pillar in my life. There is a fair chance that either my brother or I may contract schizophrenia, and for these reasons, mental illness will always be a large part of my life. I say this, not to arouse pity, but simply to make a point that no matter where you stand on mental illness, chances are that you or someone close to you will endure some type of mental illness. We are all responsible to aid those who are in need of it, and the way we respond to the call will define us as human beings.
A concise definition or idea of mental illness is fairly difficultly obtainable. Mental illness covers an extremely wide range of cases, symptoms and patients, which makes a cumulative definition hard without leaving out many main areas. A definition of mental illness is further impeded by taking into account the personal subjective ness of a mental illness (eg: some may view homosexuality as a mental illness). One of the more inclusive definitions describes mental illness as: “A pathological state of mind producing clinically significant psychological or physiological symptoms (distress) together with impairment in one or more major areas of functioning (disability) wherein improvement can reasonably be anticipated with therapy. In addition, for the purpose of definition only, mental illness includes alcoholism, and drug abuse and other controlled substance (drug) abuse.”
The above definition misses much of the individual experiences of mental illness. Mental illnesses will disrupt a person’s feelings and emotions, the way they think and view their surrounds, and their moods. Mental illnesses will also affect a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. Although symptoms and diagnosis of mental illnesses are fairly well known and classified into separate afflictions, the causes are less understood. In many ways the cause of mental illness boils down to a debate of nurture vs. nature: whether mental illnesses are the results of our environmental and situational experiences, or whether mental illnesses are inherited and passed on through gene-specific traits. Some types of mental illnesses are thought to be categorized into either the nature (ADHD, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia), or nurture category (anorexia, alcohol abuse), but without further developments into the workings of the brain, and also in genetics, it is hard to tell for sure.
In Toronto there exist numerous organizations and establishments that have been created over the years to aid and assist those affected by mental illnesses. Some examples of these are institutes that provide shelter and psychiatric care for patients such as the Center for Addiction and Mental Heat; organizations that provide those with mental illnesses the oppourtunity to work and develop a sense of self-value and self-esteem; places like the Scott Mission that provide meals and shelter for homeless and unemployed, many of whom are living that way due to mental illness (or who have developed mental illness due to poverty); and Parkdale Recreation center, which gives people a place to socialize and interact with others who are in similar situations, with whom they can relate.
These organizations are doing wonderful work in our communities, but there still needs to be more done. The article talks of organizations that work to give people with mental illnesses a sense of meaning, but it also talks of people surviving in atrocious, unlivable conditions. It discusses people living in a fear caused by the separation they feel from everyone around them. The article also talks of an issue many of us are extremely accustom to, which is the daily occurrence to witness someone with a mental illness to be living on the street. In all of these cases people are slipping through the cracks. These are people who need help, but who simply do not know where to find it, or do not know how to ask.
In today’s society (and countless societies that came before it) mental illness is seen in many ways, few of which are positive. Some, having bought into the commercial idea of a mentally ill person portrayed in movies as a psychopathic killer’. These people often make efforts to avoid contact, changing sidewalks if they see someone with a mental illness ahead of them, or protesting the construction of institutions nearby their homes. Others see mental illness as a weakness, or something to be ashamed of. They treat those with mental illnesses as children, condescending and robbing people of their dignity. Other people simply ignore mental illness, as though it were a great embarrassment that nobody should speak of. They avoid it, and maintain the it could never happen to me’ attitude. However mental illness is incurable, and inescapable.
In a society where these views are not only practiced, but encourage, it is not surprising in the least that people with mental illnesses feel suffocated, and like they have nobody they can relate to. Living in this harsh environment, it’s no wonder these people feel like they have nowhere to turn, and their illnesses then go untreated. They feel ashamed, and do not want to reveal their illnesses, and for this reason they get worse. WE are actually supporting a society that perpetuates mental illness rather than curing it, and that is the saddest fact of all.
Ideally, our society should be there to help those with mental illnesses. We should treat these people with the same respect and dignity that we would treat any other person. The article makes a point of telling us that we should start to see these people the same way we would see someone with a different physical affliction, like a broken leg, or measles. We should help these people when they need it, but let them help themselves, and maintain a sense of independence. We would let them know that we are here to help, but not overstep our boundaries. We would breakdown stereotypes and stigmas that tell us that mental illness is a danger, or is something to be ashamed of.
To conclude (simply because I have doubled the word count), mental illness is not something that is going to magically disappear. It has been with us for centuries, and we must learn to embrace is as another part of human society. Until we can do so, our society will be drastically flawed. The world we live in is home to people that come from all different situations and circumstances. If we are unable to treat people with basic respect and accept them for who they are, then I ask you; who is really crazy?