The stigma of mental illness affects individuals and families throughout our community and across the nation. Putting labels on people with mental illness can make them feel less worthy of respect than others and encourages feelings of shame and disgrace. Stigma leads to prejudice, discrimination, fear and mistrust. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. The judgments of others almost always stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding.
Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for mental health disorders. It is not the result of bad parenting. It is not due to personality weakness or character flaws. It cannot be willed away. With the right treatment and support, individuals with mental illness can and do recover.
One in four people experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, fewer than half of these individuals seek treatment. Stigma is the largest obstacle to recovery. Eliminating stigma is vital to reducing barriers and ensuring that people seek help when they need it. Research shows that the longer one waits to get treatment, the harder it is to recover.
St. Clair County Community Mental Health works to eliminate stigma every day through the programs and services we provide, community outreach activities, public relations campaigns and collaborative partnerships.
Our creative arts programs are especially helpful to individuals who receive CMH services and they play a dual role of providing an outlet for self-expression and for reducing stigma. The CMH Players theater troupe blends the talents of individuals with mental health disorders with other community members. By showcasing the diverse talents of individuals with mental illness, we continue to support the message that all people are multi-dimensional. A person’s diagnosis does not define who they are.
This year’s production, “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” will be Nov. 5, 6 and 7 at the St. Clair County Community College theater. The play offers people who use CMH services alternative pathways to recovery and discovery through the arts and also happens to have a hidden message about mental health. It includes a strong message of looking on the bright side of life, overcoming difficult obstacles, assisting individuals with substance use disorder, and intercepting suicidal thoughts. It very much supports the concept of “holding the hope” for someone who is struggling with holding hope for themselves.
Even when things look hopeless, having another person share a sense of hope can be helpful to a person struggling with mental illness or substance use disorder, and in everyday life. Join us for the upcoming production of “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” for just $5 per person.
In addition to theater productions, SCCCMH also hosts an annual creative arts contest for middle and high school students. This year’s contest theme is “Connecting Mind & Body through Recovery.” Entries are being accepted for the middle school writing contest and high school art contest through Jan. 21. More information about the contest, including entry forms and contest rules, is available at www.scccmh.org.
When it comes to stigma and discrimination, there’s a lot you can do to get involved and make a difference. First, if you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health or substance use disorder, seek treatment right away. If you are comfortable sharing your story, break the silence — talk about your recovery. Educate others and challenge myths and stereotypes. Be aware of your attitudes and behavior. Choose your words carefully because the way we speak can affect the way people around us think and speak. Get involved with an advocacy group and support mental health parity.
And finally, support people and celebrate differences. Treat others with dignity and respect. What we do today to reduce stigma and change attitudes about mental health will help shape our future. Together, we can make a difference.
Debra Johnson is director of St. Clair County Community Mental Health.
This article first appeared on ‘ The Times Herald’ on 22 October 2015.