Social stigma hinders road to recovery

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 30, 2011

Carol A. Racz Greene
For the Salisbury Post
To begin with, there is just one me and just one you. We do, however, have similarities. We share the inherent physical frailty of being susceptible to illness. Illness is a part of your life and mine. It is a part of all our lives in one way or another.
Our illnesses may involve taking medications, having operations or changing our lifestyles and diets, such as in treating hypertension or diabetes. And in that frame of reference, I would like you to view the real picture of mental illness, emphasis on “illness.”
Without the blinders of stigma, we should view mental illness as science has categorized it: As an illness, or sometimes more specifically, as a brain disorder. Stigma, however, has often put a spin on people so afflicted so that they are viewed not as ill but as having a personal or moral weakness; or, if a child, as one who is a product of bad parenting.
Mental illness encompasses a variety of diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar (manic-depressive), major depression, panic disorder or Alzheimer’s disease. All of these are illnesses or disorders pertaining to a particular anatomical organ: the brain. A person who suffers from mental illness has a brain that is not functioning properly, perhaps because of chemical imbalances, trauma from injury or other factors. And just as with other illnesses, the organ has to be repaired or its dysfunction managed with medication, surgery, therapy, changes in lifestyle or other medical procedures.
Mental illness must be understood and viewed as a treatable illness, not as a weakness or something to blame on the person suffering from it or on a parent or family members. Having said that, it would be disingenuous not to recognize that people with a mental illness often manifest behavior that is “different” from others, causing them to be feared and shunned. Understanding that this difference is due to a malfunction in the brain and not a character trait goes a long way toward breaking down the barriers we often raise when encountering “different” illnesses that may change one’s behavior until they are treated.
For example, the brain may suffer from a chemical imbalance, such as in the polar opposite conditions of depression vs. mania (hence: bipolar), where the brain either lacks a sufficient supply of a chemical (such as serotonin) or has too much of it. As a result, a person may be given to despondence, suicidal thoughts, deep despair, etc. from lack of the chemical — or will experience a state of being “higher-than-a-kite” from having too much of the “good-feeling” naturally-occurring chemical. It’s comparable to giving too much insulin or too much sugar to a diabetic whose pancreas has become inefficient in producing the chemical that balances blood sugar levels. Have you ever seen a diabetic who is low in sugar? That person can be very irritable and argumentative. Have you ever seen a diabetic whose sugar levels are high? He or she can behave as if “high” as well.
In both bipolar and diabetes, chemical imbalances can trigger similar behavioral responses, although the diseases involve different chemicals and different organs.
Both are illnesses or disorders of an organ; both are physical, not mental (i.e., not simply in one’s mind).
However, diabetes is socially accepted and recognized as an illness, with no stigma or shame attached. But bipolar is often considered socially unacceptable; it is not understood as an illness but often viewed as a moral failing or personality flaw, with stigma and shame attached.
At present, society at large, government programs and even many treatments fall short of providing the understanding, support and where-with-all that can nurture self-reliance for someone with a mental illness. Rather, many present programs undermine recovery and perpetuate dependence on “the system.” As a result, negative stigma toward mental illness persists.
NAMI Rowan, located in Salisbury, is a nonprofit group dedicated to “Changing Attitudes/Changing Lives.” We meet twice a month (contact 704-633-6931). We are part of a national organization (National Alliance on Mental Illness) established by people who themselves suffer from a mental illness and who got together to provide positive services with positive attitudes. Since 1950, they have made a difference in legislation, education and attitudes. For instance, NAMI provides programs based on recovery, which is about hope, self-understanding, self-reliance and obtaining independence and self-respect for people who have a mental illness. NAMI works hard to dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness.
In closing, how recently have you heard a person with a mental illness referred to as someone who has “lost their mind”? Well, where did it go, this mind-thing? (“Mind” is a whole different subject, possibly one for a philosopher.) Worse yet comes the meaningless, umbrella label “crazy.” That sums up what illness, exactly?
Mental illness touches everyone, in some way, as does illness in general.
Celebrate with us this week during Mental Illness Awareness Week by “Changing Attitudes/Changing Lives.” Say something positive or give a warm, accepting smile to a “crazy” person. Hey, you can say hello to me.
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Carol A. Racz Greene is the secretary of NAMI Rowan.