Despite a plethora of resources and organizations devoted to the cause, not everyone is aware of the truth behind mental illness. Some are still scared of the word and the lies that have been told, and they lack the proper education about even the basics.
Since 1990, Mental Illness Awareness Week has tried to change that. This year, the awareness week will be held October 3-9, and one of its main supporters is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), although the week was officially started by the U.S. Congress for the first week of October, according to NAMI’s website.
Bill Kennard, the executive director of NAMI Arizona, an affiliate of the national organization, said that awareness is important because people still believe myths and have misunderstandings about mental illness. In Arizona, misunderstanding could have been a contribution to budget cuts toward help for those with mental illnesses.
“It’s a little-known fact that about one in four Americans will have a behavioral health issue at some point in their life,” Kennard said.
Awareness has the possibility of decreasing stigma and prejudice and increasing acceptance.
“I think if people understood that it’s more common, that people don’t cause their mental illness, that it’s a biochemical and perhaps genetic disease, and that people aren’t dangerous for the most part…their ability and willingness to accept people with mental illness would be increased,” Kennard said.
Despite these hopes, there have been disheartening findings from recent studies.
A Columbia University study found that “researchers found no change in prejudice and discrimination toward people with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems despite a greater embrace by the public of neurobiological explanations for these illnesses,” according to a ScienceDaily article. The data was collected from 1996 to 2006.
There’s a four-year time period that could’ve allowed for some change in opinions, but it seems like there’s still a long way to go. The findings show that people might be aware on some level, but either they’re not understanding the full picture or despite the knowledge they can’t learn to accept and tolerate people with mental illness.
“As those facts come out, I think they begin to challenge peoples’ perspectives about what the causes of mental illness are,” Kennard said. “Why that it hasn’t caught on more I think is part of our challenge…to educate the public about those facts and about the experience of people with mental illness and their families.”
People could still have prejudices against those with mental illness because of a variety of factors, he said.
“One certainly can’t discount the way, by and large people with mental illnesses are portrayed in the media,” Kennard said, including referring those with mental illness and “crazy” and inaccurate presentations in movies.
Also, there are rare instances where a person with a mental disorder commits a crime and is violent, and the media tends to focus on that aspect instead of what happened.
“When people who do see an individual with a mental illness who has some signs of their illness there…it’s unnerving to people,” Kennard said, and what people see in movies can cause some fear as well.
Besides increasing the public’s knowledge, there is also the need to learn how to be comfortable with those who have a mental illness and handle certain situations.
“It’s not unusual that people don’t know,” Kennard said, giving the example of people being aware of epilepsy and not knowing how to deal with a person when an actual seizure happens. “I think mental illness is a little like that too. It’s a hidden disability. Oftentimes when we do see a sign of it, it’s one of those things that we probably should be more aware of.”
For mental disorders like depression, there are some ways people can improve the way they handle the person when they are experiencing symptoms.
Kennard said when family, friends and co-workers know a person has a mental disorder like depression, the best thing to do is ask him beforehand what they can do to help when that person is going through a bad experience with the mental disorder.
“If we don’t know…one of the things that we certainly don’t want to do is we don’t want to be judgmental,” Kennard said. “We don’t want to say things that are impossible for the person to do. We don’t want to say, ‘Snap out of it’ or “It’s going to be all right.’”
He said it’s similar to saying those things to someone who has a medical illness.
“It’s not something that they can do something about,” Kennard said. “We would recommend to be understanding to the person…They may have been a person who is very independent and very ‘can take care of themselves,’ but right now they made need us to do for them. We should maybe do for them for a short period of time because they can’t.”
For those who are hesitant about being friends with someone who has a mental disorder, it’s important to realize that a person with a mental disorder has just as much to offer as someone who doesn’t. There might be more awkward moments or challenging situations to deal with, but it can be a rewarding experience and help both people build self-esteem, life skills and their understanding of the world. Being understanding and attempting to put negative judgments aside is not only useful for working with those who have mental disorders but for dealing with people in general. For example, someone might say something weird or act in a different way than you are used to, but instead of discounting them as a possible friend, try to understand why they’re acting that way and even how you can help them. These experiences can make you a better person.