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Why We Should Treat Mental Health Like Physical Health

Study shows the belief that people with mental illness are dangerous has grown.

Shooting Star Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Shooting Star Studio/Shutterstock

When someone shares that they've been diagnosed with a physical illness like multiple sclerosis, no one says, "You should just think positive if you want to feel better," or "Quit exaggerating. We all have problems in life." But, sadly, those are the types of things that people with mental illness hear.

Even though an estimated 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental illness at any given time, only about 40 percent seek treatment. And those who do seek treatment often wait a decade or more to get help.

Mental illness is treatable. But before we can support people in getting help, we need to address the misconceptions about mental illness that often prevent people from getting help.

Mental Illness Is Still Misunderstood

We've made gains in our understanding of mental illness over the past few decades. We've also made huge strides in treating mental illness with therapy, medication, and other supportive services.

But according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, most people still believe that individuals with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable.

Media fuels those beliefs. That's in part because many stories about crime — especially the most heinous ones — usually reference the individual's history of mental illness.

And while it's true that many criminals do have mental illnesses, most people with mental illness don't commit crimes. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators.

TV shows and movies also offer inaccurate portrayals of mental illness. Horror movies often include a mentally ill murderer. But sometimes even dramas or comedies can be harmful.

It doesn't help that treatment providers are frequently portrayed as bumbling idiots. Or, in other cases, it's the psychotherapists who are the evil ones. Without a doubt, those types of depictions influence how our culture views mental health.

How We're Making Progress

Fortunately, we've made some progress in destigmatizing mental illness during the past decade. We're talking more about mental health issues, and our eyes are opening to the fact that we're all vulnerable.

Many celebrities have stepped forward to say they struggle with mental health issues. Carson Daly recently opened up about his history of anxiety and panic attacks. And Beyoncé shared she's struggled with depression.

The Players Tribune recently put together a collection of articles written by athletes who shared their experiences with mental illness. NFL player Brandon Marshall revealed he's being treated for borderline personality disorder, a condition that is often quite misunderstood.

NBA player Kevin Love shared about his experiences with panic attacks. He reluctantly began attending therapy, but he admits it's been helpful. He makes it clear that none of us are indestructible by saying, "Everyone is going through something."

In addition to celebrities and sports figures stepping forward, we're starting to talk more about mental health in general. Some physicians are asking questions to screen patients for potential signs of mental health issues.

Many school departments are becoming more aware of the signs of potential mental illness, and colleges are becoming more adept at offering services to students in need of help.

Why We Still Have a Long Way to Go

As a mental strength trainer and psychotherapist, I'm thrilled to see the progress we've made in just the last decade. But I'm also reminded of how much more progress we need to make.

Most of my readers and audience members are on board with the concept of mental strength. But, at least a few times a week, someone asks a question like, "Don't you think the term 'mental strength' is offensive?"

No, I don't think talking about mental strength is any more offensive than talking about physical strength. Everyone has room for improvement, and anyone has the power to build mental muscle. It's all about the choices you make on a daily basis.

Questions like that, however, demonstrate how pervasive the idea is that mental illness is somehow a weakness. But that's not the case.

Just like someone with diabetes can be physically strong, someone with depression can be mentally strong. And it's my mission to keep spreading that message.

With that said, we can take steps to improve our mental health — and quite often that means building mental strength. And, sometimes, building more mental muscle can prevent mental illness before it starts.

Just like it's important to educate people on how they can take steps to stay physically healthy (diet, exercise, and sleep), we need to talk about the steps people can take to improve their mental health.

Most people aren't ashamed to see a doctor to help them take care of their bodies. Hopefully someday no one will feel ashamed to see a therapist to help them take care of their minds.

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