Here it is near the end of 2019 and mental illness is still stigmatized in the United States and all over the globe. In the public arena we widely speak of confronting racism and sexism and advocate for diversity and respect among certain designated groups, but the perceptions and attitudes towards people who suffer emotional illness continue to be negative and misguided.

According to mentalhealthfirstaid.org, some disturbing statistics are revealing:

  1. Nearly half of adult Americans will experience mental health or substance abuse challenges.
  2. Five percent of people 18 or older will experience mental illness in any given year.
  3. In adults in any given year, 14.4% have one, 5.8% have two and 6% have three or more mental illness issues.
  4. Half of all mental illness begins by age 14, and three-quarters by age 24.

For further enlightening numbers, you can visit the website of the National Alliance on Mental Health

Mental disorders come with many diagnoses. The major ones are anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, Asperger’s, autism spectrum, psychosis, major depressive disorder, panic attacks, antisocial personality disorder and social anxiety disorders. These and others are described in the DSM-5, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by psychiatrists to codify mental disease.

It used to be thought that mental illness, or “madness” as it was called years ago, was a moral or personal shortcoming. Advances in medical science, especially in brain imaging, psychobiology and neuroscience, lead to the conclusion that mental illness is most surely none other than a medical disease, really no different than any other disease. The altered and dysfunctional actions of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain and central nervous system are what is really behind mental illness, not moral or personal faults. 

And yet, people who suffer with these problems are still seen as somehow deficient or lacking in either character, moral fiber or both. It is time that this attitude ceases.

Advances in treatment aimed at restoring some or most of the neurochemical balance to a person’s brain chemistry has vastly improved patient outcomes and prognoses. But, even among insurance companies, health plans and in the legal and political forums, mental illness and its sufferers are still the subject of prejudice and even scorn. This has to stop. And the only ways it can stop is by educating everyone about the medical facts and basis for mental illness and to keep talking about and fine-tuning policy, treatment and the law.

All of us are somehow touched by mental illness. I can think of no one who does not personally, or through a family member or friend, know someone affected by the challenges and pain of mental illness. It is truly the one commonly avoided health issue that everyone should be carefully considering.

The laws about who and under what circumstances treatment must be instituted to protect an unstable mentally ill person from himself or others varies widely. Some of the laws, I’ve learned from friends and patients, can be very unfair to the families of the mentally ill person. Personal freedom is often protected more than enforcing needed therapy on a truly dangerous mentally ill person. I’ve seen it time and again.

I understand that personal freedom is an inherently primary right. But when a mentally ill person is shown repeatedly to be a threat, many states make it very difficult, past the immediate crisis, to enforce continuing therapy. I know this for a fact because I’ve seen it firsthand. The issue of enforcing much needed therapy upon people who are a danger to themselves or others is a contentious one, I’ll admit. So is the issue of how insurance and disability carriers will handle claims and reimbursement for the mentally ill. But I’ve no doubt that there needs to be change—personal, legal and social—to see mental illness clearly for what it is: a medical disease, first and foremost. For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews.