Mental illnesses and society


From: Mark Jacobson, CPSS

Mental illnesses have long had a place among the most controversial topics in society, from causations to treatments to public policy and perceptions. Half of all adults have experienced a mental illness at some point during their lives, and the most common form of mental illness, depression, is even among the leading causes of disability in the U.S. From popular culture to face-eating cannibalism to mass shootings, mental illness permeates mass media like no other time in history.

From 5000 B.C., the time of the first known treatment of mental illness, people have been searching for reasons to explain why mental illnesses exist. In early societies, it was speculated that demonic possession was the explanation for mental illness, and many cultures still believe that mental illness reflects a wrongdoing on the part of the family or individual.

Currently, medical and psychological experts believe that mental illnesses are caused by interactions of heredity and environmental factors, malfunctioning chemical messengers, predisposition, extra stress at home or in social settings, and biological components. Treatments of mental illnesses have been just as widely varied across history as the reasoning behind these afflictions.

From portrayals in shows like “American Horror Story” and movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” many people are familiar with certain forms of treatments that have previously been used for mental illnesses. The mentally ill used to be institutionalized or locked away in their families’ homes to be kept out of sight and not embarrass their families. In these institutions, many mentally ill people were subjected to inadequately performed lobotomies, which often rendered them “zombies.” Others were prescribed large doses of high-powered medications.

As a result of the deinstitutionalized movement, which started in 1955, many mentally ill people were moved out of asylums and could no longer be committed against their wills unless they presented a danger to themselves or others. Treatment for mental illness today falls under the categories of psychotherapy, medication and community support groups, or any combination of the three. Psychotherapy can include methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical-behavior therapy and family therapy. Many community support groups include 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Depression Anonymous (DA), or Dual-Diagnosed Anonymous (DDA). Medications include anti-psychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics (anti-anxiety), and even stimulants.

Films and television programs depicting treatment of mental illnesses not only show methods that were once used to treat these illnesses, they very often bring up some of the very current stigmas that come along with them. With 60 percent of prime time characters who have mental illnesses being portrayed as involved in criminal activity, as well as the recent uproar over the connections between violence and mental illness, there have been general conclusions drawn that those who suffer from mental illness are more likely to commit crimes. This assessment is not correct; in fact, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. Although there has been an increase in the mentally ill inmate population, it is largely because there is not widely accessible mental health care for many of those who suffer from severe mental illnesses and are homeless, poor or struggling with substance abuse. Only about 20 percent of those struggling with mental illness ever receive professional help, and it is no doubt because of the way that many of the afflicted are still viewed by society at large.

Mental illness is also connected with substance abuse. Although there is no clear-cut number that defines the relationship between the two, there is a definite correlation. Many experts define the nature of this relationship as “self-medicating,” a means to relieve the symptoms of a particular disorder, counteract the side effects of medication, or increase the effect of a prescribed medication. Regardless, substance abuse and mental illness tend to go hand-in-hand.

Our society has been shaped and molded by the many facets of mental illness for decades. Humane and effective treatments are available for many mental illnesses, as well as support groups found in communities everywhere. Whether is it through medication, group therapy, individual therapy, or an alternative form of treatment, mental illnesses are no longer something to be hidden away in a basement or asylum. This speaks to the progress made on an important front in our global culture.


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