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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

01-27-17 | By

Mental Health Treatment: Deconstructing the Stigma

Mental Health Treatment- Deconstructing the Stigma

“Don’t think of it as weak-Don’t think of any, any form of mental health medical procedure as an admission of weakness. If your leg is broken you put a splint on it. Nobody says like, ‘Hey pussy. What are you wearing that splint for?’ you broke your leg. You need help, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting help that you need that will keep you going…Denying help in itself is a weakness, is a kind of weakness. And until you get yourself to as healthy as you can be…that’s when real strength comes into play.

-Andy Richter on The Hilarious World Of Depression

Mental Illness In America Today

These days more and more people are opening up about their struggles with mental illness, and yet it is still one of the last truly “taboo” subjects in our culture. Why? Why is it so hard to talk about something that millions of people in America  suffer from? Think I’m exaggerating? Let me hit you with some facts, courtesy of The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and the National Institute of Mental Health:

  1. General Anxiety Disorder affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population.
  2. 6 million Americans (that’s 2.7% of the population) have a panic disorder.
  3. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.3.
  4. Persistent depressive disorder, or PDD, is a form of depression that usually continues for at least two years.
    It effects about 3.3 million American adults every year.
  5. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder effects 2.2 million Americans.
  6. In a given year, Bipolar Disorder affects about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population 18 and older.
  7. Anxiety disorders affect ONE IN EIGHT children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

*Slowly drops the mic*

A Brief History of Mental Health Treatment

According to HistoryCooperative.org, “The history of treating mental illnesses dates as far back as 5000 B.C.E.” Throughout history, the way we treat patients with mental illness has drastically evolved. Treatment has included everything from shock therapy to exorcisms to straight up lobotomies.

Interestingly, our modern conception of medication being used to treat mental illness was sparked by accident. “In the autumn of 1951, doctors treating tubercular patients at Sea View Hospital on Staten Island with a new drug —  iproniazid — observed sudden transformations in their patients’ moods and behaviors. The wards — typically glum and silent, with moribund, lethargic patients — were ‘bright last week with the happy faces of men and women,’ a journalist wrote.” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, New York Times)

You may be familiar with SSRIs such as Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, and Zoloft. Prozac first entered the market in 1988. Since then, SSRIs have become the most commonly prescribed antidepressant. In the grand scheme of things these medications are relatively new. Could this account for the stigma – a fear of the relatively unknown?

Opposition to Medication

*Let me be clear. My views do not reflect the views of AA, NA, or sober people as a group.

My success with medication is what spurs my interest in the argument against doctor-supervised medical treatment for mental illness. I have been on a steady dose of medication since the age of 15. Without it I would be dead or locked up. Left untreated, my bipolar-depression, borderline personality disorder and alcoholism will kill me.

But many people in the general population view medications (and therapy!) as admittance of weakness, a cop out, or an unnecessary form of treatment. Some extremists in the sober community see medication like Prozac and Effexor as on par with street drugs or alcohol, claiming if a substance is mind altering it’s a drug. This also includes things like caffeine, tobacco, and weight loss supplements. I should note that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “But this does not mean that we disregard human health measures. God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitated to take your health problems to such persons.”  

Listen, I’m not a doctor but I think you should do what you have to do to keep yourself mentally stable. Self-medicating didn’t work for us. Willpower only goes so far.  Spirituality can’t physically change the chemical imbalance in your brain. If medication is another vehicle to a happy and healthy life, you can count me in. 

The Stigma of Asking For Help

A study in the journal Psychological Medicine shows that the stigma associated with mental illness is still a major barrier to seeking treatment.

Getting help can be scary. Some of us don’t want to admit we need help because admitting that opens up the door to some really hard work. But there is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in taking medication. Again: THERE IS NO SHAME IN TAKING MEDICATION. Where is the weakness in wanting to better oneself?

I think much of our shame surrounding mental illness stems from a fear that others will view us as weak or “crazy”. Society tells us that they key to a happy life is lots of water, regular exercise and prayer, among dozens of other methods. While all of those things are important, they are not a substitute for medication. We don’t look down on treatment for physical illnesses.  Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone preach about treating a dislocated shoulder or a concussion with prayer and meditation?

Stigmatization of mental illness is dangerous. It breeds fear and for some it leads to death resulting from untreated mental illness(es). Here are a few consequences of the global stigmatization of mental illness, courtesy (once again) of ADAA and the NIMH:

  • Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those suffering receive treatment.
  • 36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.
  • 40 to 50 percent of all people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia go untreated each year. The number of untreated people suffering from some other disorders, such as anxiety or depression, is even greater.
  • Untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems.

Privilege In Getting Help

It’s important to acknowledge that not everybody is in a position to seek treatment. For one, it can be expensive. Second, some addicts come from cultures and families that look down heavily on treatment for mental illness. Just as you have compassion for those who need medication you must also have compassion for those who aren’t in a position to receive help. 

You Have A Choice

For years I self-medicated with weed, pills, self-harm, sex and alcohol. My addict brain convinced me that those things were keeping my mental illnesses at bay when in reality they were just keeping me sedated and numb. Fear completely overtook my life. Fear kept me from asking for help.

Remember that we don’t just get sober and call it a day. There is a clear correlation between addiction and mental illness. According to drugabuse.gov, “The overlap of brain areas involved in both drug use disorders and other mental illnesses suggests that brain changes stemming from one may affect the other.” There are preexisting issues which remain even after a person gets sober. Medication is a valid way of going about treating those preexisting issues. Going on medication for a mental illness is ultimately your choice. You don’t owe an explanation to anyone. 

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