Shifting attitudes about mental illness

Posted May 23, 2010, at 8:26 p.m.

The recognition that recovery from behavioral health conditions is the likely outcome of good treatment, a supportive environment, and a belief system that all people can grow, learn and improve the quality of their lives is an essential component to a healthy community.

May is National Mental Health Month; time to recognize that recovery from mental health conditions is not only possible but also probable. This is an extremely important message as society’s understanding and support of people living with mental illness still lags behind the science of psychiatry and all we have learned about the brain in recent years.

The most important thing you can do if you are having mental distress is seek help and expect to benefit. The best thing you can do for a person experiencing significant mental distress is to encourage them to seek help and benefit from it.

Stigma — from the community, from the family or held by the person affected — can be described as the belief that a person is less capable solely due to a condition. Stigma is the largest barrier to accessing care and one of the greatest hindrances to healing and recovery. The elimination of these barriers to effective treatment is the responsibility of every individual, for as we create a culture of understanding around the science of mental illness and its treatment we decrease the stigma.

Education is the key to creating the shift in attitude, and I am encouraged by the signs of progress I see around this issue in the community. Young people in particular seem to have a greater openness to mental health topics, and frequently when The Acadia Hospital engages youth in dialogue we are impressed with their knowledge and their willingness to support friends and family living with mental illness. As they are our future, there seems to be reason for optimism, but we still face current challenges.

Duplicated research studies have demonstrated that the majority of those with serious mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia will have a significant improvement in the quality of their life over time. Most will achieve lives that mirror the lives of those without such conditions. This new reality represented a clear and significant contrast to the “old” and long-held belief that such a diagnosis meant a diminished existence.

But despite the numerous longitudinal studies that have been published predicting that the diagnosis of a serious mental illness does not predict a life of doom, many in our communities do not understand that reality. Disturbingly, health policy and systems of care do not always reflect the expectation of recovery.

A hundred years ago if you had some disabilities you might have been sent to a “state home” because it was believed you could not attain a life of value. That model of care (isolation and suppression) predicted the likelihood of being able to achieve a valued self-directed life more so than the actual disability.

Today, it is expected that despite physical disability you will have the opportunity to fully participate in community life and activities. Recovery from major mental illness happens not unlike recovery from other major health events. Expectations for recovery, or an ability to seek, attain and maintain the self-selected valued life one desires, are significantly different based on the type of illness or injury.

If you suffer an amputation, lose your sight, lose your hearing or ability to walk, most people expect they will be physically stabilized through acute treatment and then will learn and grow and adapt. Most people acquainted with a person who has such an occurrence will be telling them they will overcome the initial impact of the disability to achieve a full and meaningful life.

Too often, regrettably, a person with a new diagnosis of a serious mental illness is expected to “manage” from that point forward. People with such diagnosis are sometimes encouraged to “recalibrate” their expectations downward.

During this year’s Mental Health Month, let’s all examine our beliefs about the resiliency of human beings and the enormous capacity of all to overcome obstacles to live lives of value and purpose. Hope is frequently communicated by our expectations.

If in pain, get help. Live your life to its fullest. Don’t accept anyone being minimized. Expect to thrive. These are the foundations of hope and are essential to recovery from all life’s obstacles.

David Proffitt is the president and CEO of The Acadia Hospital.

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