Sitler: What is Stigma Anyway?

I was already working on this column when Licking County Health Commissioner and MHALC Board member Joe Ebel’s September 23 article, “Stigma compounding our addiction crisis”, was published in The Advocate. What a perfect segue into my topic!

When we talk about mental health and addiction issues, the word stigma is often used to explain why people don’t get the help they need for those conditions. We know that people wait ten years on average from the onset of mental disorder symptoms to the time of a diagnosis. Can you imagine what the outcome would be if you were diagnosed with cancer, diabetes or heart disease and you decided to wait ten years before receiving care? You’d be lucky to be alive by then. When considering mental illness and addiction, if someone waits that long before seeking treatment, they’ll most likely be in what we consider stage 4; they’ll be incarcerated or hospitalized, if they’re still with us.

So what causes someone to forge ahead without help when they have a mental health or substance use disorder? Let’s start with who these people are. They are you, me, our relatives, friends, neighbors, the people we work with and anyone we come into contact with in our community. Lifetime prevalence of diagnosable mental health issues is nearly 50 percent. That means that one out of every two Americans will experience a mental health disorder at some point. When something is that common, why are we afraid to talk about it?  As Joe wrote, “stereotyping leads to prejudice, discrimination, fear, shame, distrust and creates barriers to treatment and recovery.”

You may remember when Betty Ford disclosed that she had breast cancer in 1974. Back then, someone with breast cancer was considered contagious or having come from an unclean environment. Whole families were ostracized when someone was diagnosed with breast cancer. Adamant that some good would come of her disease, Betty campaigned publicly for women to undergo mammograms to catch cancer early for better outcomes. Fast forward to 2018. How do we react today when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer? We offer meals, rides to appointments, child care or any other activity that will ease that person’s and her family’s burden. We wear pink, run in races, raise money and celebrate survivors.

I look forward to the day that mental illness brings out the best in us, when we support people experiencing mental health issues with our time, talent and treasure. Let’s trade in judgement for understanding. We know that the average life span of someone with severe or persistent mental illness is 25 years shorter than the average person. Talking about mental health and addiction issues will eliminate the stigma and open the doors to treatment for many, having a positive impact on life expectancy. Our whole community will be better off as a result. Article published in The Newark Advocate on October 6, 2018


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