In February, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson gave a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral in which he revealed something that he’d been keeping a secret for a long time. He had, he admitted, been struggling with depression since he was in his 20s. It was something he had kept to himself for decades.
At the time Gerson was asked to give the sermon, he had recently spent time in the hospital being treated for his depression. He knew he had to make the choice, following his hospitalization, whether to continue keeping his mental health a secret or to be open about what he had been dealing with.
He decided that it was important that he speak publicly about his own mental health issues, to essentially come out of the closet as a person coping with mental illness, for the sake of the many others who were in the same situation.
But why was it a difficult decision to make? Why is the stigma surrounding mental illness so pervasive, and why is it so important when someone decides to step forward and bring their mental illness out into the light?
Mental Illness Affects Everyone
Gerson knew before he spoke up about his own mental illness that he was far from alone. If you’re not coping with mental illness yourself, you almost certainly know someone who is, and it’s likely someone you love. It’s probable, in fact, that you know more than one person who, at one time or another, has struggled with mental health issues.
Consider these statistics:
- About 43.8 million American adults are affected by mental illness each year. That’s nearly 1 in every 5 adults.
- Almost 10 million Americans adults each year experience mental illness so severe that it significantly hinders their daily lives.
- About 1 in 5 teenagers experiences severe mental illness at some point.
- Approximately 16 million American adults were affected by major depression in the past year.
Yet, despite the fact that mental illness touches us all, the stigma that has always hung over sufferers persists. Misperceptions about mental illness breed negative feelings toward sufferers, and that negativity translates into real, harmful consequences for them.
A Stigma with Consequences
The consequences of stigma are not just a matter of perception for those with mental illness. Prejudices and unfounded concerns about the illnesses make the lives of sufferers harder in many different ways:
- Relationships with other people–even loved ones–can fall apart when those people don’t understand what the sufferer is going through.
- Sufferers can face discrimination on the job, in the housing market, or at school.
- People with mental illness are often bullied, sometimes violently.
- Insurers sometimes refuse to cover treatment for mental illness.
Some of the most heartbreaking consequences of the stigma, though, are those in which sufferers hurt themselves because of what other people think. Because they don’t want to admit that they’re struggling, they’re often hesitant to seek professional help for their illnesses. They often, also, retreat into the illness and convince themselves that they can never lead fully productive lives.
Rising Above the Stigma
Although the ideal solution would be to lift the stigma entirely, sufferers of mental illness can take steps to help themselves even in the shadow of the judgment of others.
- Don’t be reluctant to find treatment for your illness. Putting your own health in jeopardy out of fear of admitting that you have a mental illness is much less than you deserve.
- Learn about your illness. Getting to know the truth about what you’re dealing with is a good first step toward countering the misperceptions of others.
- Find others who understand your illness. Support groups provide the reassurance that you’re not alone in your struggle with mental illness, and a group can offer strategies for thriving in a world that often doesn’t understand you.
But the most effective way to fight against the stigma is to deprive it of the darkness it needs to grow. That’s why it’s so important each time someone steps forward with their story of coping with mental illness. Every story reveals evidence that people with mental illnesses can successfully navigate the challenges of their disorders and still live productive lives.
That’s especially true when the storyteller is a well-known journalist who can serve as an example of how mental illness need not rule out a successful career. But each story matters, even yours, because telling your story reveals, to the important people in your life, the truth of mental illness and the way it touches us all.
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