Americans are very health conscious. Regularly we see and hear reports about obesity, heart disease, and cancer. There is much concern currently over the flu virus that has swept the country.
Medical professionals are constantly cautioning us about one thing or another. A lot of emphasis is placed on certain medical tests, methods of disease prevention, or proper diet and exercise. Strong public campaigns abound for breast cancer awareness, prostate screening, flu shots, and other health related concerns.
It is important that we properly care for our bodies but we need to pay attention to more than our physical wellbeing. Humans are complex creatures and wellness involves a balance of physical, spiritual and mental health.
Churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations emphasize spiritual health and the practice of spiritual disciplines such as personal and corporate worship, Bible study, and service to others. There is an abundance of programs and initiatives to develop strong spiritual beings.
While physical and spiritual (or at least religious) health is a priority in our culture, we fail to focus as much energy and attention on mental health. We talk about the value of exercise and positive thinking to our mental health but little attention is given, and even less conversation, about depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
Statistics indicate that 1 in 4 Americans experience mental illness every year. Mental health expert and researcher Dr. John Grohol believes that is more likely 1 in 3. That means that 75 million people in the United States experience some form of mental disorder annually. The National Alliance of Mental Illness indicates that about 14 million adults live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
In 2011 the World Health Organization reported that mental illness - that is, any mental disorder - accounts for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. Yet all we hear people talk about in the media is reducing your risk of these health problems. We rarely hear anyone talk about anxiety or depression.
According to the U. S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention,
- Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
- Mood disorders such as depression are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults ages 18 to 44.
- Adults living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than other Americans, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
- Over 50 percent of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older who are served by special education drop out- the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
- Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years.
Efforts to address this significant public health issue are complicated by the fact that there is a stigma associated with mental illness and experts claim it prevents many people from seeking help. Therefore "people coping with mental illness have a lot more to deal with than just the disorder itself. Many people report that the stigma of mental illness, and the prejudices they encounter because of it, is nearly as bad as the disorder's symptoms themselves." (www.healthyplace.com)
What stigma? The following scenario may help answer the question. Imagine that you have breast cancer. Now imagine that instead of NFL football players supporting your illness by wearing sneakers with pink cleats and pink logos on their jerseys, society blames you for your illness. Imagine others looking at you with accusing eyes and whispering about you behind your back when they find out you have breast cancer. Imagine feeling fearful of seeking proper medical help because you're afraid you'll lose your job if anyone finds out about it.
People with mental disorders must cope with this type of stigma on a daily basis. But why should they? Mental illness is a disease just like cancer. No one wants to develop cancer. No one wants to deal with mental illness either.
Former president Bill Clinton said, "Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all." God help us to destroy the stigma by addressing mental illness with compassion and working to find cures.