As I climbed the staircase to the brightly lit waiting room of the local mental health clinic, my face burned red in a fire of dread and embarrassment. When I entered the room of the attending psychiatrist, I stared at her white hair, wondering whether I would possess similar scars of aging by the time I left this place. My fleeting distraction was interrupted when she disclosed my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder with concurrent panic disorder.
My eyes widened. I felt a burning heat in my chest. I simply couldn’t believe that something was so profoundly wrong with me, that the intrinsic neural circuits that made me who I am needed rewiring. I did not want to accept that I was “abnormal.” Above all, I felt desperate to hide my need for therapy, afraid I would no longer be perceived as the same Ryan I had been for 19 years.
It is destructive that seeking help for mental health issues is viewed as a negative action. Rarely are people embarrassed to seek a medical doctor’s help for a sore throat or a high fever. Conversely, the health of the body’s most important organ often carries a debilitating stigma that deters people from protecting it. Those with medical ailments are often showered with sympathy while the mentally ill are often viewed as dangerous misfits, which discourages them from seeking treatment.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory recently established the Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force, combining branches of state government to work toward improving care for the mentally ill. A primary goal is to address the stigma associated with mental illness by educating the general public. But McCrory’s strategy of addressing the non-mentally-ill may not inspire the hesitant mentally ill individual to seek treatment. Rather, the mentally ill must be addressed first to truly bring change.
When I first realized I was sick, I felt the constant burden of this destructive stigma. A primary cause is the extreme portrayal of people with mental illnesses. Too often when I turn on the news, I see horrifying images of police cars stationed outside schools, panic on the faces of innocent bystanders and a familiar headline detailing the events of an act of violence. The image of the individual culprit is hidden behind a barrage of speculation regarding the killer’s mental status. The media fuel the extremist views of many, labeling the disease rather than the individual to be dangerous.
Why do the media so often point fingers at mental illness for acts of violence? Linking mental illness and violence provides an explanation for the unexplainable. Humans tend to not want to consider that violence is an intrinsic capability that can surface from time to time.
To create a more accurate and balanced view of those with mental illness, it is essential to increase openness among the mentally ill and those not suffering from mental illness. Previous openness campaigns have pushed for a “coming out” procedure, with all the pomp and circumstance that it entails. However, self-acceptance must be promoted first before any mentally ill patient could be expected to share secrets with the world.
Before I was able to accept my disorders, I experienced anxiety about having an anxiety disorder. Bolstering more private therapy models, without anxiety-provoking waiting rooms, such as an online medium could increase comfort among reluctant patients, aiding them in developing self-acceptance and ultimately galvanizing a truly open society.
However, self-acceptance alone may not end the stigma. Many believe that one cannot be highly successful and highly functioning while suffering from a mental disorder. The work of highly functioning individuals sometimes is undermined by a perceived incompetence. Increasing openness among successful individuals such as celebrities, politicians and academics will demonstrate that mental illness and success can coexist and that one does not disqualify the other.
Rather than educate the general public, we must attack the stigma from the inside, privatizing therapy to encourage treatment and bolstering self-acceptance. Only then will we see tangible results from mental health initiatives such as the one embraced by McCrory.
Ryan Pearman of Chapel Hill is a student at the University of Southern California.