Active Minds: Thinking twice about mental illness

Over the winter break, my younger sister managed to get me hooked on Criminal Minds. It is a fictional show that focuses on solving horrific serial crimes, usually being committed by a single person.  The more episodes that I watched, I began to notice a pattern: most of the criminals suffer from some type of mental illness.  Schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, post- traumatic stress disorder and a number of others have been featured among the episodes.  As the background stories of these criminals would unfold, I couldn’t help but find myself feeling compassion for these people and for what they have endured.  Some were military veterans, some had sexually, physically, or emotionally abusive pasts, and some were simply suffering from a mental illness that was taking over his or her life.

While I do not condone any form of criminal activity, especially the unspeakable crimes committed on the show, these fictional characters do make me wonder about how different the world could be if the societal shame attached to mental illness was eliminated and people felt free to get the help that they need.

Large proportions of the population are suffering in silence, a silence that is toxic to our society. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted a study with the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which defines a mental illness as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders).”  The survey concluded that there were an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. diagnosed with a mental illness in the past year, representing 18.6 perdentof all U.S. adults.

However, this statistic only includes those who had the courage to participate in a survey to disclose their mental health history.  The 2012 study had a non-response bias that included 28 percent of NSDUH’s adult population, meaning over a quarter of the sample did not respond to the survey.  This alone shows the immense stigma that surrounds mental health in our society.  Of the 43.7 million U.S. adults suffering from a mental illness, a second survey from the NSDUH found that only 13 percent are receiving mental health services, defined as inpatient or outpatient settings, or prescription drugs.

That leaves millions of affected individuals being untreated for a mental illness.  Imagine having a disease that was completely diagnosable and treatable, yet was ruining your life because you were unable to personally seek treatment due to the fear of how others would treat you if it were to become known what you were battling.  That is the situation that millions of people with a mental illness find themselves in every single day.

To those who do not understand the plight of these millions of people, it may sound ridiculous, and I can already hear the comments of “who cares what other people think!” Unfortunately, it is not that easy.  Our society has been built to disregard those who need treatment for mental health.  This was made abundantly clear in 1970 with the de-institutionalized all state hospitals and is still clear today with states making cuts in mental health budgets, nearing a total of 5 billion dollars over the last three years.

So with this knowledge and the beginning of a brand new year, I challenge each one of you to try your hardest each day to help break down the stigma surrounding mental health.  The likelihood of us changing our nation’s society is quite small, but we do have the amazing opportunity to change the environment on this campus.  Do you know someone who has a mental illness? Let them know that they can talk to you for support, without judgment, even if you can’t promise to understand what they are going through.  Is someone struggling, but can’t muster the courage to go to the counseling center? Offer to go with them.

Small acts like these can make the world of a difference to someone who may be suffering in silence.  And it is with these small acts that we can harvest an attitude of compassion, inclusion, and support for our peers who have a mental illness.