Did you know that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, more so than heart disease or cancer? Throughout a person’s lifetime, there is a 50 percent chance of developing some type of mental illness. These are staggering statistics that not only show the frequency with which mental health disorders affect people and their loved ones but also highlight the association between mental illness and disability.
According to WHO, 450 million people suffer from mental health disorders, and by 2030, depression will be the second-worst health problem in terms of cost for middle-income countries and the third worst for low-income countries. Based on these statistics, the pervasiveness of mental illness within the U.S. and throughout the world can be easily appreciated.
From every epidemiological perspective, mental illness represents a serious and devastating group of health disorders.
Because mental illness lacks the same tangible evidence of poor health as physical ailments, often people are encouraged to simply “buck up” and get on with their lives. This is a big part of the problem. We wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to jog it off, and we similarly shouldn’t tell someone with mental health symptoms to will their symptoms away. Neither situation responds to such advice.
In addition, particularly for many men, mental illness itself is seen as an inherent character weakness. People who see a “shrink” are viewed as lacking mental strength, and this undermines feelings of masculinity and pride. Unfortunately, by minimizing their complaints and trying to explain them away, these individuals delay the help they need, often causing them to become even sicker.
Mental health care can also be neglected because of how individuals and families react to mental health symptoms. Some attempt to normalize them. Individuals and families often share a form of denial in which obvious problems are shrugged off as being variants of normal. One may hear something like, “Oh, that’s just Rick being Rick.” In addition, some families have mental health conditions spanning several generations. When this occurs, the capacity for these families to tolerate odd thoughts and behaviors and to see them as normal increases. These are notable barriers that need to be overcome in order to encourage earlier and more comprehensive mental health care.
A doctor may hesitate to state that someone with a long-standing mental illness is disabled from working because of a lack of hard evidence in the form of exam findings and/or test results. Whether the threat is real or not, some doctors fear they may be reprimanded (or even have their license revoked) if some authority considers their disability assessment to be false.
For these reasons, even the simple act of getting a written work excuse for worsening mental health symptoms can be hard. All of this only serves to make the person with mental illness feel unimportant, poorly trusted, and unsupported.
Just as the medical community struggles with giving mental illness the same weight as physical illness, so does society. Employers readily excuse employees when they suffer a flu-like illness or need surgery, but calling in sick for the worsening of a depressed mood would likely be received quite poorly. Complaining that one cannot leave one’s home because of an increase in obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms might result in being terminated. In either case, a no-win situation exists for the person with mental illness. They can either suffer through the workday in a worsened condition or face an increased risk of losing their job.
But all hope is not lost. Mental illness is real, and early interventions do result in better outcomes. As a result, perseverance in seeking adequate help is essential, and people with mental illness need support from their families, caregivers, friends, and communities in overcoming the barriers to receiving proper care that currently exist.
As we learn more about psychiatric disorders, these barriers will gradually diminish. In the meantime, more understanding and support are needed to assist individuals suffering from mental illness in getting the help they need.
EXCERPTED FROM UNDERSTANDING MENTAL ILLNESSS: A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS FOR FAMILY AND FRIENDS BY CARLIN BARNES AND MARKETA WILLS. COPYRIGHT © 2019 BY CARLIN BARNES AND MARKETA WILLS. PUBLISHED BY SKYHORSE PUBLISHING. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ■