As a society, we like to think that we’ve advanced and have grown more tolerant of cultural traits and differing viewpoints. We’d also like to believe that the same is true for the stigma that accompanies mental illness.

Stigma against mental illness has declined over the past decade thanks in part to an increasing number of vocal public figures and celebrities. Many have come forward to discuss their own issues in interviews or through personal social media accounts. This helps shed light on some conditions that are otherwise misunderstood. Even Prince Harry has spoken up about the benefits of therapy after he avoided dealing with his mother’s death. Watershed moments like these help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

These individuals have helped start the conversation about mental illness as just another disease. Nonetheless, there is more work to come.

The fact remains that mental illness is still seen differently than other medical illnesses. Unfortunately, mental illness continues to be stigmatized in both subtle and obvious ways:

  • To care for what could be an episode of anxiety or depression, many will take a sick day because of a “headache,” rather than a “mental health day.”
  • Although politicians undergo medical exams and release the results, psychiatric exams are not required or reported.
  • Using phrases like “she’s lost her marbles,” referring to someone as “crazy,” or implying that someone with depression can just “snap out of it” are more subtle reminders of that stigma. These only demean and diminish the person.

Although society is making strides in reducing the stigma, these signs indicate the way many people still view mental illness. Unfortunately, these cues can and do prevent some from seeking needed psychiatric help. Even if an individual does seek help, lack of family support can also reinforce the stigma, or can impact treatment. If I recommend a family meeting, it’s not uncommon for a patient to say that a spouse will not attend because they’re not “the one with the problem.”

Psychiatric disorders, like depression and anxiety, are some of the most common mental illnesses. In fact, depression is sometimes referred to as the “common cold” of mental illness because of its frequency. Worldwide, depression is the second most disabling illness.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of Americans have experienced an episode of clinical depression at some point in their lives. But unlike the common cold, clinical depression doesn’t last just a couple of days. It persists, and can last months or longer. It can also significantly interfere with a person’s ability to function in everyday life.

Signs of depression that could indicate you need to get help include: poor sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue, lack of enjoyment in usual activities, and suicidal thoughts.

Anxiety disorders are as common as depression. Like brief periods of sadness, stress and anxiety are often a normal part of life. In fact, when anxiety isn’t too severe, it can be beneficial because it helps you prepare for a situation. However, when feelings of stress and anxiety become overwhelming and interfere with one’s ability to function, this could be an anxiety disorder.

If you notice these signs of anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help: constant and persistent worry, longstanding difficulty falling asleep because worries are on your mind, difficulty concentrating, tension in your muscles, phobias that interfere with your activities, feeling like you are having a heart attack but a cardiac exam is negative.

If your thoughts and feelings are interfering with your quality of life, please seek the help of a qualified professional.

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Mark Zimmerman, MD

Dr. Mark Zimmerman is a psychiatrist and director of the adult partial hospital program and outpatient psychiatry at Rhode Island Hospital.

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