by Laura Lynch, LCSW, Life Coach
An Additional Burden: Stigma and Misconceptions
When illness is mysterious or poorly understood, physical or mental, additional burdens are brought on to a person who is living with the illness, and often family or friends.
It was not that long ago that people would not talk about having cancer. Sometimes, if we are afraid of something, there is magical thinking that if we don’t talk about it, we will not have be overcome by it.
Or, in another example, someone with severe cerebral palsy, perhaps in a wheel chair, maybe with difficulty speaking, maybe viewed as having an intellectual disability. (Cerebral palsy has to do muscle control and coordination, and affects movement and responses in different ways. It is not a cognitive problem and it is not a disease. Some people might have other problems, such as intellectual disability, to go along with cerebral palsy, because it is not uncommon for people to have multiple problems.) In any event, don’t assume.
Fear and misunderstanding leads to discrimination, punishment, and ill advised solutions.
Even in our current time of self confessions and evidentially no secrets, mental illness remains mired in myths and misconceptions.
Here a few points I’d like to make:
- The brain is a physical organ, in which chemistry works through cellular physical structures (neurons) governing everything that happens to our bodies. This includes our perceptions, senses, thoughts, emotions. The brain and therefore our body responds to experiences, including environmental.
- Illness of any kind is a malfunction originating from internal or external factors. Sometimes our bodies respond with defense systems (which bring on symptoms) and sometimes just breaks down.
- Behavior is an external manifestation of internal functions, and our reactions to environment. Behavior is always connected to some sort of internal state. It is not some sort of separate thing that needs punishing, even if the behavior is hiding something.
- Experience and memory influence our perceptions, senses, thoughts and emotions.
- Trauma, for example, is often a precursor to serious mental illness, such as Schizophrenia, along with genetic factors.
- Trauma is a highly physical manifestation. It may not always be in the forefront, but it lingers, hiding in the shadows of long term memory and coming out with triggers. People usually remember their traumas vividly, if prompted.
- We call it mental illness because of the effect on perceptions, senses, thoughts, and emotions. Mental illness affects all of these things. It is has real physical effects on the brain.
- You can get a better understanding of mental illness if you view it as subset of physical illness.
- There is a tendency to want to sometimes blame people for their mental illness as a weakness (taking drugs, giving up too soon, blaming parents or family, etc.).
- A delusion is a false belief, strongly held. If someone really believes something, are you going to be able to change their understanding of reality? Yes it is possible for someone to start to have the self awareness to know their paranoia is false, or their voices are voices, but this takes time. Try examining your own set of beliefs and see how hard this is.
- We are only just beginning to understand mental illness. The field of psychology tends to get excited about things, including new drugs, but it is a complex and stubborn group of illnesses. Like cancer, it has complex manifestations. One person’s bipolar or schizophrenia is not necessarily exactly like another’s.
- People with mental illness are searching for happiness like the rest of us. The topic does not deserve scorn, patronizing, or pretend positive attitudes.
- Celebrities with mental illness are not “acting out”, “pretending”, “behaving” or “being stupid and spoiled”. Being talented, lucky, skilled, rich, famous is not some sort of heroic shield. In fact being a celebrity can interfere with getting help in time.
- Drug abuse problems and reckless behavior is often a part of mental illness.
- Personality disorders are also mental illness.
- As it true with other illnesses and disorders, it may be more about chronic, lingering and remission than outright cure.
- For some people, serious mental illness during adolescence and young adulthood does prevent moving on through life stages of personal development and completion of education. This interruption may result in social, skill and knowledge deficits.
- Many people with mental illness feel alone and apart.
- Nobody wakes up and decides they are going to ruin their life with drugs, depression, poor decision making, trauma, family estrangement and inability to work, marry, and have a fulfilling life. Gee, I think i will have drug addiction or hear voices the rest of my life, because you know, my life is so boring or I want to annoy you.
- Try to imagine loud, negative voices constantly going on in your head while you do ordinary tasks. Remember, our brains really don’t do multi-tasking as well we think.
- Compassion, listening, education, and more funding will go a long way.