It’s Time to End the Stigma
Nearly one in five American adults experience mental illness in any given year according to the National Institute of Mental Health – and one in 25 experiences a serious mental illness (SMI) consisting primarily of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, people with mental illness experience a high degree of stigma. They’re often discriminated against in the workplace and their personal lives from those who see a person with mental illness as odd or flawed. Such a lack of empathy is often the result of ignorance about mental illness or the inability to recognize it as a medical condition.
In recent decades, the stigma surrounding mental illness has improved slightly. Yet it persists. Part of the problem lies in that although mental illness often has biological and genetic roots, it’s still classified under the field of psychology. Because psychology is defined as the study of human ‘behavior’, people see it as indicative of personality flaws or learned behavior and that a person should be able to just ‘snap out of it’.
Many experts and advocates recognize this problem and are calling for biologically-based brain diseases to be reclassified into more appropriate fields of medicine like neurology. Such a move would go a long way toward reducing stigma. Reclassification would also help to ensure those with brain illnesses are able to get insurance coverage and adequate treatment.
In the meantime, what can be done to reduce stigma? Educating society on what mental illness is and is not, is key. When people with a mental illness brave coming out and telling their personal stories, slowly but surely, more people hear the message. Celebrities sharing their own personal experience has been particularly helpful. It seems the public is more receptive when admired celebrities share their trials and tribulations.
The following are the more serious mental illnesses as well as some of the celebrities who’ve been diagnosed with each condition.
Major depressive disorder (MDD).
In any given year, 6.7% of the population will experience MDD. Unlike the occasional sadness or blues many people experience, MDD is a persistent low mood that interrupts daily living. Symptoms include changes in appetite and sleep, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, and ruminations about death and suicide sometimes accompanied by suicide attempts.
The exact cause of MDD is unknown. What is known, though, is a variety of factors can contribute to the disorder including biological changes in the brain, genetics, hormones, and brain chemistry.
Some people with MDD might experience a single bout. Yet for others, it’s chronic. Fortunately, antidepressants are quite effective for most people. Though some are treatment-resistant leading to long-term disability.
Ashley Judd, Owen Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Heath Ledger, and Winona Ryder are among the many celebrities who’ve battled major depressive disorder.
Bipolar disorder (BD).
This disorder, affecting 2.6% of the population, is marked by emotional extremes ranging from depressive symptoms, as described above, to mania or hypomania. During manic episodes, sufferers experience a decreased need for sleep, extremely elevated mood, increased energy or agitation, are easily distracted, have racing thoughts and take foolish risks. For some with BD, delusions and hallucinations accompany mania.
Though the exact cause of bipolar is unknown, it’s biological and often genetic.
Bipolar is highly treatable, though some people experience treatment resistance. Also, during manic episodes, people with BD are typically unable to recognize their illness. Left untreated, it can be a very debilitating disease.
Some celebrities known to have bipolar disorder are Demi Lovato, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Carrie Fisher, and Sinead O’Connor.
Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
These two diseases combined affect 1.5% of the population. Schizophrenia is considered the most serious mental illness of all. It’s marked by symptoms of psychosis which include delusions and hallucinations and sometimes disorganized thinking, speech, or motor movement. What fewer people recognize is what’s known as the negative symptoms. These prevent a person with schizophrenia from functioning. Those with schizophrenia often have poor hygiene, withdraw socially, and have a symptom known as avolition, which is a decrease in motivation.
Despite new and improved medications for this disease, only one-third of sufferers are able to lead a relatively functional life. Another one-third is treatment resistant with the final third receiving some relief. As a result, two-thirds of those with schizophrenia are dependent, or often homeless or housed in America’s jails and prisons – known as today’s new mental health institutions.
Schizoaffective disorder is marked by features of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
While the cause of these two disorders is unknown, researchers believe genetics, biology, and environmental factors combined contribute to these brain diseases.
Finding celebrities with these two diseases is rare because schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder typically strike during the late teens to the early 20s at which point they become moderately to severely disabled. However, John Nash, Lionel Aldridge, Calen Pick (nephew of Glenn Close), and Eduard Einstein (son of Albert Einstein), all suffer, or suffered, from schizophrenia.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
This perplexing disorder, which affects 1% of the population, is marked by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are most commonly in the form of fear of contamination or harm to self or others, excessive concern with order or bodily symptoms, or intrusive religious thoughts. In turn, those afflicted with OCD act out compulsions to alleviate their fears or thoughts. This is done through repeated acts of checking, organizing, washing, or senseless acts of tapping, counting, or repeating words.
Medication combined with therapy is helpful in treating OCD, though the prognosis is better for those with milder symptoms. Many people with this disorder experience severe debilitation.
The cause of OCD is understood to be a combination of genetics, biology, and environmental factors.
David Beckham, Marc Summers, Howie Mandel, and Fiona Apple are known to suffer from OCD.
One in ten adults experiences a panic attack every year. Panic disorder, however, affects only one in 33 people. With this disorder, people experience sudden and repeated bouts of extreme fear that lasts at least several minutes if not longer. The symptoms include shortness of breath, racing heart, trembling, weakness, dizziness, chest pain, tingling or numbing of hands, stomach pain, nausea, or fear of dying, being out of control or impending doom, to name a few. Panic disorder often results in avoidance of things or places where attacks have previously taken place.
Panic disorder is highly treatable with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. It’s believed to be biological and genetic in nature.
Though it’s unclear whether the following celebrities have been diagnosed with panic disorder, they’re known for experiencing panic attacks: Johnny Depp, Princess Diana, John Mayer, and Emma Stone.
Autism spectrum disorders.
These disorders affect one in 68 children. Symptoms include repetitive or unusual behaviors, intense interest in certain topics, making little eye contact, facial expressions and gestures that don’t match what’s said, an unusual tone of voice, and difficulty understanding other points of view among many other social, language, cognitive, behavioral and emotional deficits.
Treatment for this developmental disorder includes behavior interventions and medication. Prognosis is dependent, in part, on early diagnosis and intervention.
Though the cause of autism spectrum disorders is unknown, genetics and environmental factors appear to be contributing factors.
Celebrities diagnosed with these disorders include Dan Aykroyd, Courtney Love, Daryl Hannah, and Paddy Considine.
Hopefully, as more Americans suffering from mental illness open up, we can put an end to the pervasive stigma that surrounds it. Just like any other organ of the body, our brains are prone to medical conditions. The brain is the most complex organ of our bodies. So it only stands to reason it’s going to be subject to a variety of biological conditions. As researchers come to understand our brains better, more sophisticated diagnostic tools will be developed for more definitive diagnosis. In the meantime, we should learn to treat those with mental illness with the same dignity, respect, and empathy we would treat someone with a heart condition, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease.
Kimberly Blaker was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the age of 27. Her diagnosis was later revised to bipolar II disorder. She has a son with schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia and bipolar). She’s also a mental health advocate and played an instrumental role in the enactment of the mental health care portion of what became the 21st Century Cures Act.