Americans often aren’t right in the head about mental illness, and the consequences are many

Written by Michael Richardson 

A condition of the lungs? Normal. A disease of the skin? Unfortunate but normal. A sickness in the mind? Crazy.

The irony is apparent but so goes much of the societal perception of mental illness. Often, we aren’t sure how to act towards people who have an invisible illness with symptoms we don’t understand. We may carry misperceptions about the realities of mental illness or even wrongfully ostracize the mentally ill, and the consequences are abundant.

“Among the consequences of discrimination and stigma for adults who have mental illnesses are lowered self-esteem, disrupted family relationships and increased difficulty in building connections in the community, securing housing, and obtaining employment,” says Rebecca Glathar, Executive Director of Utah’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. “Children who experience discrimination and stigma may be scarred for life.”

Another result is that an alarming number of sick people don’t get the treatment they need, either out of shame or because they don’t know how or where to find it. 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders in a given year, according to Mental Health America.

“It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all other organs, is vulnerable to disease,” they write.

Former NAMI Utah president Alexander Morrison agrees.

“Among the most painful and often protracted ordeals an individual or family may face is that of mental illness,” he says. “The devastation spreads from individual sufferers to all their peers and family “like ripples in a dark pond.”

Myths of Mental Illness

Myth: People who need psychiatric care should be put in an institution

Mental health care has made significant progress in recent decades. Bizarre treatments of decades past have been replaced with effective support programs, therapy and medication, allowing the mentally ill to lead fulfilling and successful lives.

Myth: The mentally ill are violent

The vast majority of people with a mental illness are not violent. This myth may be why most people say they would rather not have a mentally ill person marry into their family or be a close work associate.

Myth: Children don’t get mentally ill

On the contrary, children experience some of the same mental illnesses as adults, though it often is manifested differently, according to Clair Mellenthin, a psychotherapist at Wasatch Family Therapy in Utah. An estimated 20 percent of children experience some kind of serious to moderate mental problem, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Some kids are biologically prone to certain mental conditions, like anxiety and negativity, but outside influences are often at the root of the problem, Mellenthin says. Divorce, adoption, trauma, abuse and a host of other common problems can cause mental illness in children.

Myth: The mentally ill can’t be cured; treatment doesn’t work

The only truth behind this statement is that some mental illnesses never totally leave a person. But modern treatment and medication make normal life possible, according Mellenthin.

“You can learn how to cope with it, you can have a very happy, fulfilling, productive life,” she says. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 80 to 90 percent of mental disorders are treatable using medication and other therapies.

Myth: Mental illness has something to do with moral character

A General Social Survey in 2006 found that about a third of Americans endorsed the view that schizophrenia and depression are a result of “bad character.”

Mellenthin says some people think that the mentally ill just needed to read religious texts and will be fine.

Unnecessary Shame

Since violence, incurability and flawed morality are often stereotypically tied to mental illness, families and individuals are understandably hesitant to admit to any mental problems and seek medical help.

  • Less than 60 percent of Americans with a serious mental illness receive treatment, according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • 80 to 90 percent of people who commit suicide have some kind of diagnosable mental illness. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Mental health issues are rampant in our prison systems. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that 73 percent of females and 55 percent of males in state prisons have mental health problems.

Author Liza Long writes about the challenges brought on by her mentally ill child Michael, who exhibited dangerous behavior at an early age. Her son’s social worker told her that the only way she would get the help she desperately needed is if she pressed criminal charges against her 13-year-old son, who had threatened her.

“No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail,” she writes. “But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options.”


This dismal situation is brightening, however. National and global campaigns have launched in the past decade to eradicate the stigma of mental illness, helping improve attitudes and increasing willingness to interact with the mentally ill. The programs may even reduce suicide rates.

President Obama has recently called for increased dialogue on the subject of mental health, and has pushed for the Department of Health and Human Services to create regulation in the new health care plan that broadens coverage for mental illness.

State NAMI organizations offer support, advocacy and education to erase stigma. Organizations like these can provide needed shelter from the misperceptions of others.

“We affirm that there is hope and there is help,” Glathar says. “Treatment is possible. Individuals and families do not have to face the challenges of mental illness alone.”

NAMI Utah:
1600 West 2200 South Suite 202
West Valley City, UT 84119
Toll-free 877-230-6264

NAMI Idaho:
4097 Bottle Bay Road
Sagle, ID 83860

Mental Illness Today

There are five major categories of mental illness:

  1. Anxiety disorders (affect an estimated 40 million Americans): The most common. Includes panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders and phobias.
  2. Mood disorders: depression ( affects more than 14 million Americans), bipolar disorder (affects 5.7 million Americans)
  3. Schizophrenia (2.4 million Americans): hallucinations, delusions, withdrawal.
  4. Dementias: Alzheimer’s (5.3 million), diseases affecting memory.
  5. Eating disorders.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health, CDC

There are a host of mental illnesses. Not included in the list above are personality disorders, which are characterized by rigid personality traits that are often unacceptable in normal society.

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Michael Richardson

Michael Richardson

Managing Editor at Healthy Magazine
Michael is the managing editor of Healthy Magazine, with years of experience writing about many aspects of health. He can't imagine a field more relevant to every living person.
Michael Richardson

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