Stigma Around Mental Illness Pervades

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With advances in the treatment of mental health disorders, many individuals are living prosperous lives.

Those treatments include new therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectal behavior therapy (DBT); pharmacological treatments; alternative methods, including herbs; and newer procedures such as the use of hallucinogens (ketamine) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), alongside older treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Unfortunately, despite these improvements and the brave, positive messages voiced by many public figures, a stigma still exists in society toward those living with mental health disorders.

Many of the afflicted live in fear of their employers, friends, fans and families finding out about their illnesses — maybe because they have to disclose their treatment to insurers and employers, or they bumped into somebody they knew in a doctor’s office or while attending a support group.

It may or may not be different if you are living in the public eye.

In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was chosen to be the running mate of George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate. Following the convention, it was leaked that Eagleton had been hospitalized numerous times for depression and had undergone ECT treatment. Later, false leaks alleged that he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and for traffic offenses. Eagleton stepped aside and this event, referred to over the years as the “Eagleton Affair,” still haunts candidates today.

Has the worldview of mental illness changed that much since 1972? Would we be able to accept a candidate for president or vice president that underwent inpatient stays for depression and ECT treatments?

Recently, Jason Kander, a Democratic candidate for mayor of Kansas City, Mo., a former army intelligence officer and Afghanistan veteran, withdrew from the race, citing the need for extensive treatment for depression and PTSD. Kander was an up-and-coming Democratic Party leader. We applaud Kander for caring for his mental health but can’t help but wonder if the ghosts of Eagleton haunt candidates like him.

Despite our advances, many still adhere to the “John Wayne Syndrome” of keeping their feelings to themselves and not letting anyone know that they’re hurting. Or is it now OK if you are a well-known individual who is accomplished and has received help for a mental health diagnosis?

During former Eagle Brian Dawkins’ Hall of Fame speech in August, he acknowledged his fight with depression. He said, “Toughness doesn’t mean acting like everything is going well all the time. It takes real strength to seek help. Bottling up your problems like a bull isn’t a sign of strength. It just means your problems will explode someday in an unexpected and potentially uncontrollable way.”

Allison Schmitt, an Olympic swimmer, said, “Therapy is the best tool.” In 2015, during a competition in Austin, Texas midway through the 400-meter freestyle, she just quit. She referred to her problem, depression, as “the invisible illness.” Schmitt said that she previously found it difficult to seek help from a psychologist since it was a sign of being “vulnerable.”

In 2016, Schmitt who eventually received treatment, celebrated her gold medal victory in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay at the Olympic Games in Rio. She is now pursuing her master’s degree at Arizona State to become a licensed psychologist to help others.

Carson Daly, host of The Voice and contributor on The Today Show, revealed that he has suffered with panic attacks and anxiety since childhood. He said that he was inspired to speak about his battle on live television after NBA player Kevin Love’s admission that he, too, suffered from anxiety. Daly reinforced the use of cognitive therapy and muscle relaxation as tools that have helped him cope on a daily basis.

So what should everyday people do when faced with the dilemma about discussing mental illnesses with employers, friends and family?

According to Scientific American, people who revealed their mental illness have historically faced discrimination. Experts advise that if you want to share your mental status with your boss or human resources manager, consider doing so sooner than later — but not immediately — after being hired.

In most cases, experts suggest waiting six months to a year after you have built a relationship with your employer. It may be helpful to practice what you will say to your employer and the reason for disclosing your mental illness. Experts suggest that you highlight your skills and abilities and discuss specific adjustments that you may need to improve your job. It is also important to determine if it is relevant to your job, your overall life and health to disclose your illness.

Unfortunately, our society has not advanced significantly and has a long way to go in recognizing the pain that everyday individuals who suffer with mental illnesses face. The only way we will know if progress has occurred is if we no longer need to hide in the shadows and can face our mental illnesses in the sunshine with hope and honesty. 

Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D, is an Abramson staff psychologist.

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