Helen M Farrell M.D.

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Ending Stigma on the TEDx Stage

Creating mental health: An idea worth spreading

Posted May 11, 2015

“What is the craziest thing that’s ever happened?!”  This is literally a question I often get asked after people learn that I am a psychiatrist – and one who works on a locked psychiatric unit.

I guess that these people want to hear some salacious story about what goes on behind the locked door.  But the truth is that the “craziest” thing that’s happened in my career is discovering that there is no difference between people with mental illness and “the rest of us.” 

We all struggle from time to time.  Some people just struggle more than others, through no fault of their own. 

I recently delivered a TEDx talk, “Creating Hope for Mental Healthhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z451JTU2fok to spread my idea of reducing stigma and creating communities that are filled with acceptance and mental health. 

During my medical training, it became clear to me, as I put it in my TEDx talk, that mental illness, while not always tangible, is a very serious medical condition.  It’s something that won’t just go away because you want it to. 

What surprised me, and might surprise you too, is that mental illness is a master at disguise.  Few sufferers look like tattered souls.  In fact, one in four people will find themselves diagnosed with a major mental illness. 

Stigma forces many people to hide their illness and suffer in silence because of fear and shame.

During medical school I learned that many great writers, among them, Jonathan Swift (who funded Ireland’s psychiatric hospital where I trained), was also a victim of stigma!  Moreover, it is true that family and friends, professors, actors, Nobel Prize winners, and even world leaders have struggled with mental illness.

Anxiety and depression are commonplace and account for the leading causes of disability in the United States and Canada according to the National Institutes of Health.  Not everyone experiences psychiatric symptoms on a pathological level, but we all know someone who does, and we will undoubtedly experience some fleeting symptoms ourselves. 

There are many barriers to psychiatric care; dismal insurance coverage, soaring out-of-pocket costs, criminalization of the mentally ill, and lack of inpatient bed availability. 

One of the biggest hurdles, which we as a public have the power to change, is stigma.  It perpetuates silence in those who need a voice most. 

Fear and ignorance create an ever widening chasm between mental illness fact and fiction.  There are many myths on the topic, five of which are cited frequently: 1) Mental illness only affects a few people; 2) Personal weakness causes it; 3) Mental illness is untreatable; 4) People with psychiatric problems are violent; 5) The mentally ill should be locked up forever in a hospital.

I was at a cocktail party the other night, engaging in idle chat between jazz riffs.  My group was discussing books, music, and the caterer’s choice of Maine oysters (why not ones from Massachusetts?), when a partygoer interjected something about her husband’s suicide.  As jarring as this might sound on paper, at the time, nobody missed a beat.  A few other people unabashedly shared some of their own personal experiences and we easily transitioned into a conversation about peace and acceptance. 

Mental illness is part of all of our lives – some are just more directly affected than others. 

In polite society there is a code of silence around this topic. 

We can all break that silence by talking about “crazy” stories for what they really are – shared experiences.

Spread “Creating Hope for Mental Health” by watching and sharing this TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z451JTU2fok

Follow me on Twitter:  twitter https://twitter.comHelenMFarrellMD

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