Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kudos to celebrities who work to erase stigma

Catherine Zeta-Jones checked into a mental health facility this Monday for bipolar disorder treatment. And I applaud her. She is proactive and committed to periodic care. What’s so important is that this news, so openly provided, helps erase stigma.

"It’s not easy,” she says. “I’m not the kind of person who likes to shout out my personal issues from the rooftops, but with my bipolar becoming public, I hope fellow sufferers will know it’s completely controllable. I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it, and that those who don’t have it under control will seek help with all that is available to treat it."

Many other famous people have been afflicted with mental illness. The list is long. Some have managed to control their disease; others have not.

I became interested in working to erase stigma after my son’s suicide as a result of his bipolar disorder. I wrote earlier about my conviction that his death might have been avoided had he not been affected by stigma.

My blog piece

Does the Stigma of Mental Illness Still Exist?


"My son was a young adult, age twenty-one, when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And throughout the seven years he struggled with the disease, I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a program of treatment that might have saved him from his destiny, suicide.

From the literature I’ve read, mental illness in teens and young people is widespread. They typically shy away from discussing their illness because of the fear of being made fun of or bullied by their peers. That is stigma, that is what stops teens and adults from getting proper treatment.

The most important way to erase stigma is to open the conversation about mental illness. This conversation could cover several aspects:

What are the causes of mental illness? Knowing the causes will help erase stigma and enable a search for the ways to get help if needed. Mental illness is caused by a disease of the brain, actually a chemical imbalance in the brain, much like a physical disease such as asthma or mono. Physical illnesses need treatment, so do mental illnesses. Genetic factors also cause mental illness. Find out if there is any mental illness in your family, because if there is, you could be at risk. Mental illness was rampant in my family, and those genes were passed down to my son. Unfortunately we didn’t know enough to be prepared.

How do you know what mental illness actually looks like? According to an article by Hugh C. McBride, “Stigma Keeps Many from Getting Mental Health Treatment,” the symptoms are:
  • Mood swings, agitation, and anxiety
  • Altered sleep patterns (excessive sleeping or insomnia)
  • Loss of focus or inability to concentrate
  • Drastic weight changes (either gains or losses)
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, school, or other activities that previously were important to the teen
  • Decline in academic performance, frequent absences from school, and skipped classes
  • Thoughts of death, expressions of wanting to die, discussions of suicide
  • Substance abuse (including the abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription pills)

What kinds of treatments are available? Therapy, short or long-term hospitalizations, and prescribed medications specific to the type of mental illness being treated are typical.

What are the dangers if mental illness is left untreated? These could be addiction to alcohol and/or drugs for those who are self-medicating. Suicide is also a real risk.

What are the forms of stigma? Now that it is clear that the stigma of mental illness still exists, it is important to know its forms: making direct negative remarks, calling a mentally ill person crazy, portraying a mentally ill person as a sociopath or violent in films and television, or characterizing a mentally ill person as weak or stupid."

Another actor, who works hard to erase stigma though not afflicted with mental illness herself, is Glenn Close. She has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with schizoaffective disorder (my son was diagnosed with both).

Glenn founded the organization Bring Change 2 Mind. It’s mission: to emerge as the world's most effective organization working to eradicate the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness through widely distributed Public Education Materials based on the latest scientific insights and measured for effectiveness.

Thank you Catherine and Glenn and all the other celebrities who have made their mental illness public. Your good work toward erasing the stigma will go a long way to save lives.

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