Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Progress in the Battle to Erase Stigma

            Mental health issues top of the list of reasons why Americans seek medical treatment, according the government’s most recent count.  Mental health problems prompted 156 million visits to doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospital outpatient departments in 2005, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

            The number represents a 30 percent increase in less than a decade and a quantum leap above the previous one, when coming forward to admit a mental illness was still considered virtually unthinkable. 

            This astounding mainstream awareness has helped shrink the stigma associated with mental illness.  The advent of new treatments, public education, anti-stigma campaigns by organizations like NAMI, and other efforts have paid off. 

            Stigma has shrunk but not disappeared, and   the problem is different today than it was a decade or two ago.  Much more is known about effective treatments, especially for severe mental illnesses.  The transformation has reversed the stigma equation.  A generation ago stigma prevented people from seeking treatment.  With mental illnesses topping the list of why people are in the waiting room, stigma is no longer a major factor stopping people from seeking treatment. 

The stigma around mental illness now stems from those who most need treatment but aren’t getting help.  The number is much smaller, but the problems are no less severe.  Multiple studies have demonstrated that people with severe psychiatric disorders who are inadequately treated or receiving no treatment are more likely to harm themselves or others than the general population.  The flip side is also true:  People who are being treated – the majority of those with such illnesses – are no more likely to be violent that the general population. 

The acts of violence that grab headlines are the main source of the stigma that prevents people from seeking treatment.  Policies that prevent people with severe mental illnesses from receiving treatment are the chief cause of these headline-producing acts – those policies are the ultimate enemy in today’s battle to erase stigma.  Changing those barriers is the battle plan laid out in The Insanity Offense, the new work by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center.   It is time to take a new offensive to eliminate stigma once and for all.