Stigma and Mental Health

South Shore Women's Journal - Health & Wellness
By Dr. Julie A. Johnson

What are the reasons people who need mental health treatment do not seek mental health treatment?

Believe it or not, there is still a huge stigma when it comes to accessing mental health. Many people feel ashamed that they feel depressed or anxious. People feel that they somehow have control over their feelings and they shouldn’t need a “stranger” to help them cope with difficulties. Another issue is that in our society people don’t view physical and emotional pain equally. Most people are more comfortable going to the doctor if something is physically wrong but if it is emotional pain, some people would prefer to suffer for an extended period of time before getting help, if at all.

Why do you think that is?

Research indicates that people are afraid of the mentally ill. The media exploits certain cases that are very scary and crazy and not at all examples of what most people do when they are depressed or anxious. Like most things, mental health is based on a continuum. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. At different points in our lives, events may happen that cause depression, anxiety or some other problem emotionally. If that negative feeling continues for an extended period of time, it is very important to seek out professional help.

How does someone know that it is time to talk to a professional?

People need to think about how much their problems are interfering with their level of functioning.  If a person is depressed and having a hard time focusing, working, eating, or sleeping for a period of two weeks that is significant and needs professional attention. Other red flags are suicidal or homicidal thoughts, feeling hopeless, worry, substance use, teary, anger and irritability. Any significant change in behavior or appearance could be a cue that is time to get professional help.

Do you find that people keep their treatment a secret from family and friends?

Treatment is always confidential to a point from the provider’s perspective. As a provider I always make sure that the patient is aware of the limits of confidentiality and we discuss them to the patient’s satisfaction. It is up to the patient to decide whom he or she wants to tell. Some patients are very comfortable with being in therapy and most of their family and friends get to know me as an important person in the patient’s life (although I may never meet them). Other patients are very private and choose to keep psychotherapy to themselves. I have found it usually has to do with the issues people are coming in to work on whether or not they disclose their participation in therapy.

What do you think would make it easier for people to access mental health?

It would be easier if we lowered the cost and improved health insurance for mental health. I think it would be easier if the intake process went smoother for people and they didn’t have to wait weeks to be seen by a therapist or psychiatrist. Most importantly, I think we need to promote mental health. The public needs to know it is acceptable to get treatment and moreover that treatment works!

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