All too often we see news reports of some deeply disturbed individual killing innocent people during a violent rampage. Because of inadequate systems of care, our prisons have become de-facto psychiatric hospitals. And we are all troubled by the tragic rate of suicides by veterans suffering from PTSD and depression.
But these are just the most dramatic and public examples of our escalating mental health crisis. Today, there are more than 60 million American adults—one in five—living with mental illness. According to the World Health Organization, of the 450 million people worldwide who suffer from a mental health disorder, nearly two-thirds do not get the treatment they need. In fact, the WHO predicts that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know our society has a serious mental health problem.
Along these lines, one seemingly insignificant yet incredibly powerful step we can all take to combat these illnesses is to simply change the way we talk about it. Stigma about mental illness has to do with fear, lack of knowledge, and in many ways our society has been tolerant of that. Research has long shown that stigmatization, outright discrimination and negative stereotypes about mental illness are by far the primary reasons people most in need of help go untreated.
In my experience, everybody is touched by mental illness. Now more than ever, it is important to reduce stigma and encourage people who have a psychiatric condition not to suffer in silence, but to seek help. However, high-profile, violent incidents involving people with mental illness continue to reinforce lingering stigmas.
Most violence occurs by people who do not have mental illness. More frequently, people with a mental illness are the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. There are certainly some people with mental illness who can become violent as a result of their illness, if that illness is untreated. Unfortunately, this is what gets news headlines and this is why there is this association in the general public’s perception between violence and mental illness. These tragedies should become teachable moments. They provide an opportunity to encourage people to seek treatment, to encourage their loved ones to seek treatment and they serve as an opportunity for the field to educate and engage the public.
The good news is, with continued awareness we can change the conversation about mental illness to be more compassionate, and we can strive to be more open with others about its personal impact. As hard as it might be to start the conversation with someone you trust about a personal and often deeply private mental health problem that you or a family member are struggling with, chances are that others around you—or their loved ones—are grappling with the very same issues. What’s more, when we openly talk about this type of issue, we normalize it, which can open doors for the others, and ultimately serve as a bridge to greater awareness and empathy.
By educating the public about the scientific and biological basis of psychiatric disorders, and the amazing progress we are making in brain and behavior research, we hope to help those who continue to suffer in silence. Just as has been the case for cancer, more people, including celebrities speak about their treatment and living with cancer, more and more people will be comfortable speaking publicly about mental illness. Discussing their depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia in a more open manner and that is a tremendous step forward to ending the stigma that shrouds mental illness.
About Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D.
Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, heads the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.