Though mental illness remains heavily stigmatized, with politicians blaming everything from poverty to crime on mental health issues, mental illness is common. About a quarter of the population will face a mental health issue in any given year. With more than half of all mental illnesses left totally untreated, though, millions of Americans needlessly suffer with unnecessary symptoms.
Stigma, shame, embarrassment, and poverty can all play a role in the decision not to seek treatment, as well as the inability to find quality treatment. Many people struggling with mental health issues are unable to find a therapist they like, or they encounter intolerable side effects associated with the medications they take. But giving up, rather than trying a new strategy, is extremely risky, and can cost you your health, happiness, and even your life. Here's what happens when mental illness is left untreated.
Worsening Mental Health Problems
The most obvious effect of untreated mental illness is a steady—and often rapid—decline in mental health. Mental illness will not go away on its own, and the longer it persists, the harder it is to treat. People with depression, for instance, might only experience a handful of symptoms at first. Left untreated, they may begin to experience the full range of depression symptoms, necessitating more intensive treatment and a more uncertain recovery journey.
Unexplained Aches and Pains
When mental illness becomes too challenging to deal with, sometimes the body bears some of the burden. You might involuntarily tense your muscles, leading to headaches and muscle pain. Or maybe chronic stress will lead to gastrointestinal distress. It's common for people with underlying mental health problems to complain of aches and pains that have no physical source. But over time, these aches and pains can become real health problems. If you tense your shoulder in response to stress, for example, you might eventually develop a painful or debilitating shoulder injury that worsens both your physical and mental health.
Chronic Physical Health Problems
Mental illness is not all in your head. It's the product of brain chemistry changes. Mental illness can undermine your physical health in at least two ways. First, chronic mental health issues may cause you to neglect your health, as when a diabetic is too depressed to monitor her blood sugar levels. And second, mental illness can cause health problems all its own. Chronic stress is associated with a risk of heart attacks, stroke, obesity, and premature death, and many other symptoms associated with mental illness can also lead to serious health issues.
Homelessness and Job Stability Issues
Mental illness makes it difficult to cope with the demands of daily life. Whether it's struggling to get out of bed for work because of depression, or experiencing communication difficulties due to schizophrenia, the longer mental illness is left untreated, the more likely it is to interfere with your ability to do your job and effectively interact with others. This can lead to financial troubles, job loss, and potentially even homelessness. And all of these challenges, of course, can further complicate your mental illness, making it increasingly difficult to pull yourself out of a challenging situation. More than a third of homeless people have a serious mental illness.
First, it's important to clear up a myth: mental illness does not cause violence. It does make it more difficult to conform to society's norms. For instance, a woman with PTSD pulled over by the police may enter a flashback, causing her to behave in an apparently non-compliant manner. A man with depression may feel so sad he's unable to muster the energy to pay a traffic ticket, eventually leading to the issuance of a warrant. Seventy-three percent of female state prison inmates, and 55% of men, have a serious mental illness.
Victimization and Trauma
When your brain undermines your ability to react, feel happy, or think clearly, you're more vulnerable to victimization. This can set off a chain reaction of victimization, followed by PTSD, followed by unusual behavior that leads to even more victimization. People with mental illnesses are significantly more likely to be victimized than those in the general population.
Mental illness isn't a lack of coping skills or a personal failure. It's a serious, and potentially life-threatening, illness. Left untreated, mental illness can make life so intolerable—and cloud your judgment so thoroughly—that you see no way out and no hope. Life with mental illness is hard, and for some, it's unbearable. More than 90% of suicides are directly attributable to untreated mental illness.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with untreated mental health issues, consider seeking help; you won't regret it.
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