Remove the label Struggles and stereotypes of the ‘mentally ill’

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Last week, I caught up with an old friend. We hadn’t seen each other in months, but his birthday was coming up and I wanted to reconnect. His new job kept him pretty busy, so I wasn’t surprised when he cancelled our plans for Saturday. I was surprised, though, when he called me on Sunday morning and asked me to meet him at a hospital. He was shaken up by a bad experience at work and needed help from a mental health program.

My friend has dealt with bipolar disorder for most of his life, experiencing peaks and valleys of emotion. With the support of his family, friends, and therapist, he researched his medical options and joined a support group, turning his problem into a positive experience. Many people with mental disorders aren’t as fortunate, however. Their recovery can be stunted by harmful stereotypes and social pressure. Dr. Judy Shipp, director of the UIS Counseling Center, worries that “the stigma of seeking professional help still exists.”

The line between mental health and mental illness isn’t as clear as you might think. Dr. Shipp observes “mental problems can wax and wane depending on the circumstances.” Everyone deals with depression, anxiety, and stress, especially college students. Likewise, counseling isn’t usually a dark, difficult experience involving hospital visits and medication. Counselors will recommend a wide range of solutions based on your special needs.

Dr. Shipp insists that “you don’t need major issues to benefit from counseling.” Like my friend, I crave excitement and avoid unpleasant situations, sometimes forgetting my best interests; it just happens that I don’t fit the profile for bipolar depression. Medication wouldn’t help, but I could still benefit from stress management techniques and a counselor’s support.

Counselors may diagnose patients with conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, but Dr. Shipp does not view these as lifelong labels. She instead uses them as “guidelines, to help [patients] get the best treatment for their condition.”  These conditions can be traced to a number of genetic, emotional, and situational causes, but the patient is never to blame; mental disorders are a fact of life. According to the Counseling Center, they understand this, and don’t profile patients or obsess over their problems. Instead, they emphasize strengths, offer support, and teach coping skills which anyone can use.

The field of psychology has changed, and the public needs to catch up with it. Mental disorders are still routinely blamed on unsafe lifestyles or personal weakness. The media confirms this bias by focusing on extreme cases, portraying the mentally ill as violent criminals or drug addicts. In reality, most people with mental disorders aren’t dangerous at all. They’re much more likely to hurt themselves, internalizing the bigotry and negativity which surrounds them.

Fortunately, Dr. Shipp has found that “prejudice is definitely lessening.” Many patients find the strength to ignore social pressure and seek help. They manage their conditions with a combination of therapy and medication, as well as the unconditional support of their friends and family. The media has also become more sensitive to these issues, as seen in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. The main character managed his mental disorder with help from his friends and family; hopefully, this inspired many in the audience to do the same. People with mental disorders need to seek treatment to reach their full potential; we need to back this decision and give them every possible advantage. Thanks to a great support network, my friend is well on his way to recovery, and I’m glad to share in his success.

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