Take Stigma Out of Mental Illness

An article excerpt from the Albuquerque Journal published in May 2011 and written by Desiree Wooldland, a North Valley resident, entitled Take Stigma Out of Mental Illness, was eye catching and worth sharing:

Desiree Woodland is a retired teacher who worked for both Albuquerque Public Schools and Rio Rancho Public Schools.

“I didn’t know. Or maybe i didn’t want to know. But my son was diagnosed with a mental illness, and I was forced to face something I hadn’t even believed existed.

And in our culture of misunderstanding and negative stereotypes, why would anyone want to disclose that someone close to them had a mental illness, anyway? The silence surrounding these illnesses is akin to shame and blame.

Myths abound regarding the causes: family dysfunction, trauma, and bad parenting. Not many people are even aware that the percentage of people with mental illnesses who are violent is no greater than the percentage of people without them.

No doubt having a mental illness will be exacerbated when these additional conditions are present. But the truth is that mental illnesses are physical and biological disorders of the brain that scientists say start with genetics. Brains can get sick just like any other part of the body.

“These illnesses have nothing to do with character flaws or a lack of willpower,” said Dr. Sam Keith from UNM Ideas in Psychiatry.

In his recent op-ed column he also spoke of the importance of education to confront the damage caused by the stigma surrounding mental illness. It is time we admit that we haven’t cared enough to learn to separate the facts about mental illness from the myths. We’ve never considered that someone in our family, or even ourselves, could be diagnosed with a mental disorder just as readily as cancer or diabetes.

Mental illness is sometimes referred to as the invisible plaque because it is a condition that disrupts brain chemistry but cannot be seen except through behaviors. The future holds hope for a more certain diagnosis with tools like brain imaging.

We think it couldn’t happen to us. But it is happening to us. Mental illness is more common than we have wanted to believe. It’s happening to our family and friends, our coworkers and neighbors. So it’s important that we educate ourselves, as well as future generations.

There is a program making its way into schools around the country called, “Breaking the Silence.” Its mission: to break the silence about mental illness in our schools. It is produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York and is designed to destigmatize, educate and facilitate dialogue between families, faculty and students.

We need to get this curriculum into New Mexico schools. It is only through education that we can break down the negative stereotypes and learn to view mental illness with a compassionate and understanding lens that will make a difference for all those who live with this illness.”

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