As we celebrate the 4th of July tomorrow and all of the freedoms we enjoy, my thoughts turn to those friends and family who are fighting their own battles for freedom from mental illness and addiction. And how many families and friends still hide their illness or addiction because of the stigma, guilt, and shame they still feel. It is estimated that more than 12,000 adults in Indiana have serious mental illness and 70% of them are not being treated either because they can't afford it, don't have access to treatment, or are in denial that they need help.
Thankfully we have made a lot of progress is the way we diagnose and treat mental illness and addiction, and we understand much more about the neurology of the disease. Now we have much more sophisticated medications available and other therapies that are much more effective, making living in successful recovery a possibility. Unfortunately, the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illness are still alive and well. The word "stigma" is a Greek word that means "a mark or token of disgrace". The stigma around mental illness can often be as bad or even worse than the illness itself, causing the person to live in shame and secrecy with feelings of guilt and responsibility. Only 25% of adults with mental illness believe that people are caring and sympathetic to other people with mental illness. Because of stigma, many people with mental illness and addiction may not seek treatment. Federal law has prohibited discrimination for more than five decades. People with other illnesses like diabetes aren't routinely discriminated against - why is a brain illness any different?
How do we "break the chains" of stigma? As with most stereotypes, much of it is rooted in ignorance and lack of understanding. Education and awareness is key. There are also steps that consumers can take to cope with the stigma they may feel:
1. Find and Get Treatment - don't let your fear of being labeled or stereotyped stop you from seeking the help that you need to recover.
2. Find Support - don't live in isolation, but find the support you need through groups, programs, or other networks that offer friendship and support
3. Define Yourself, Not Your Illness - your mental illness or addiction is not who you are, its doesn't define you or make you who you are. Don't say "Im bipolar" but instead, "I have bipolar". I have learned working in this field, that the person is always first, not the illness.
4. Stand Up and Speak Out - It's important that people with mental illness and addiction become their own best advocates. Friends and family members can also become advocates and help to educate and raise awareness.
Is freedom from mental illness, addiction, and stigma possible? Yes! We all can have a role in the recovery of a friend or family member with mental illness by showing our support, love, and care and ensuring that they are getting the medical and emotional care and treatment that they need. Former President Bill Clinton once said, "Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all".