Mental Illness: Study and Stigma

Published 11:25 pm Saturday, April 18, 2015


Mental illness.  Yes – illness.  It’s not a weakness, a flaw in character, nor an unfortunate imperfection.  It is an illness, treated in the same fashion as high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, or diabetes.  And most, if not all diseases and illnesses are studied and researched in a similar fashion, usually through the field of epidemiology.

What is epidemiology?  Good question.

I encountered multiple aspects of study through my graduate education in health care administration, and a class in the study and understanding of epidemiology was easily a branch of health care I favored over others, specifically in the field of behavioral health science.  In simple terms, epidemiology, according to our online academic or paper-bounded companion Webster, is a branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of a disease in a population.  It challenges and empowers us to ask why.

The National Institution of Mental Health’s (NIMH) research on mental health epidemiology suggests that mental disorders are common throughout the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year.  The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) states one in four adults, roughly 61.5 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year, and overall, only half of those affected receive treatment. But why?

Many suffer from mental illnesses’ taxable, draining and sufferable grasp.  And yes, I use the word suffer, since mental illness can be sufferable.  Insufferable?  Without proper diagnosis and treatment.  Absolutely.  However, for most, sufferable, managing and tolerating, is a clearer description, thus the reason only half of those with the illness seek help, for example dismissing depressive symptoms, ascribing random acts of sadness, worthlessness, bouts of fatigue, restlessness, irrational feelings of guilt, and similar symptoms as normal part of life.

As a society we have experienced significant, monumental, and immense progress in the understanding and treatment of mental illness.  Numerous advancements have been achieved in the field of behavioral health research theories and behavioral medicine, notably enhanced awareness and improvements in medications, offering greater efficacy and reduced side effects.  The advancements are truly astounding.

However, a stigma still remains.  The Mayo Clinic, regarded as one of the premier medical facilities in the world, based in Rochester, Minnesota, easily recognized for its passion for research and integrated care, understands the determents associated with the stigma.  The Clinic sensibly defines a stigma as a negative view or stereotype, or a distinguishing trait that is thought to be a disadvantage, and unfortunately, these beliefs are often common, which can ultimately lead to discrimination through uninformed judgments and unenlightened opinions.

The Mayo Clinic defines the harmful effects of stigma:  reluctance to seek help, lack of understanding by friends, family, and others you know, bullying, harassment, and most blatantly, a lack of hope, a belief that challenges and efforts are pointless.

Treating the mentally ill requires a strict sense of empathy – an ability to truly understand the illness.  And, understanding empathy requires, no, mandates, the established ability to identify the gravity of the illness, connecting emotionally beyond a simple academic and intellectual understanding.  For most, a broken leg has a quantifiable and demonstrated solution.  Set the bone and it heals.  The mind rejects this premise, reminding us, all of us, how incredibly little we know about the brain and its independent command on us, often battling the body for the authority of control.  And yes, empathy is required to combat the stigma and stereotypes of mental illness.

Fortunately, we are improving, investing time and resources in the treatment of mental illness.  The dividend?  An informed community, understanding behavioral maladies, edification through both treatment and, like any disease, illness, or disorder, the importance of prevention, specifically through education, awareness and acceptance.  Easy?  No.  Essential?  Yes.

Can we concentrate and focus on the prevention of mental illness?  Certainly.  As a community, and as a proven leader in eastern NC health care, we can treat and teach prevention concurrently, which will only benefit us all, slowly ridding us from the stigma of mental illness, creating informed, and objective judgments, and a vocabulary free from words like weakness and hopeless, enhancing our knowledge, treating the symptoms of mental illness; the ultimate focus on transforming an ill to the mentally well.

If you feel you are struggling with mental health issues, please contact your primary care provider for assistance in getting the care you need.

Michael Bilbro, MHA is Program Director for Behavioral Health at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.