Mental Illness is Like Any Other Sickness

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Even if mental illness doesn't affect you directly, the chances are that it affects someone you know or care about, so read on. Each of us needs proper information to put mental illness in a correct perspective. This is because there is a lot of misconception and misinformation in our society about mental illness. In fact, this article is on a request from the readers of this column who have asked me to comment on this subject. Some of them have waited long for me to respond to their request. 

Our fear of mental illness is deep rooted and it is largely irrational. The fear gained its roots in the dark ages when mental illness was seen to be the Devil's work. People in the dark ages believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil and therefore the exorcists physically tortured the mentally ill to drive the evil spirit out of their bodies. Many women who were mentally ill were branded as "witches" and were ceremonially burned on the village post, ironically, as an act of kindness to save their souls. For at least three thousand years as the records tell us, patients with psychotic illness were feared, therefore tortured and chained so others could live safely. Compared to that we sure have come a long way. Today, mentally ill receive a treatment that is far more humane.

But, we have a long way to go. A survey of people's attitude towards mental illness indicates that even today, in our so called "developed" society, seventy percent of people think that the cause of mental illness is personal "weakness." This view held by seven out of every ten individuals, implies blame. The thought is, ``If you allow yourself to be gripped by a mental illness, you are a weak-kneed person. You let your worries or negative thoughts get out of hand.

"People who subscribe to this "weakness" theory of mental illness think that if a person would only try harder, he or she can overcome the mental or emotional disorder he or she is suffering from. What they may know is that a mental illness can't be "cured" by personal strength or sheer will power alone. 

The problem with the weakness theory is that it breeds secrecy and guilt about mental illness and blocks out proper intervention usually until the situation gets out of hand. Take for example, a case in which untreated anxiety becomes so severe that a person quits working and/or stops going out to the stores in order to avoid all situations that make him or her anxious. Take another case in  which untreated depression kills all the joy and interest that a depressed person once had in life, until finally he or she does not want to get out of bed. This is a sheer waste of human potential and causes much unnecessary suffering while others are waiting for the mentally afflicted to "just pull out of it." 

What would your doctor say if you let a high fever go on for several days, or let your persistent cough continue for several weeks without doing anything about it? If your doctor is up front like my doctor, I can hear him or her saying, "Are you crazy? What were you thinking?" If we shouldn't ignore physical illness, why should we ignore mental illness? Mental illness is just like a physical illness. It is no different from a heart disease or diabetes, or even cancer in the case of a serious mental illness. 

The second most popular but equally misguided theory of mental illness is the "craziness' theory, "If you have a mental illness that means you are crazy." A person who has a an emotional-or a mental disorder is not crazy. In fact it is the theory that is crazy. This misconception prevents families and individuals from taking help. Here right in front of their eyes they witness the symptoms of phobias, panic, or depression disabling them but they would refuse to go to a professional. They think, "Why should I? am not crazy!" 

In other cases, people know that they have an emotional disorder, but they keep on avoiding or postponing a visit to a professional. They fear that it would confirm their worst fears, "You have an emotional disorder. You must be crazy." 

The fact is that mental or emotional disorders affect millions and millions of people. When we have a mental or an emotional disorder we need others' understanding, support, and care just as we do when we have a physical illness. Mental illnesses is highly treatable. Psychological therapies, on average, take about six hourly meetings. Note that about eighty percent of people feel better with just six hours of treatment! It is patently false that "once mentally ill always mentally ill" No, it doesn't take years of treatment to feel better, in most of the cases. 

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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