Thomas Howard: It’s time to end mental health stigma

By THOMAS HOWARD,

Monday morning, driving to the Newton County Jail to collect the week’s arrest reports, I tuned in to “Now You’re Talking,” a weekly radio show hosted by political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey. May is mental health awareness month, and his show was focused on discussing the stigma of mental health, the social avoidance of the topic and how Americans can do better helping the mentally ill.

One of the things Ramsey said was when people have cancer, church members bring casserole. When someone has a heart attack, neighbors mow the grass. But, when someone is suffering from mental illness, people avoid them.

I have witnessed this firsthand. When I was a child, a family member had a difficult time with mental illness. With two young children, she needed help and relied upon neighbors and church friends to give it. They did not, instead opting to avoid her, forbid their children from playing with her children and, in one instance, laughed in her face for seeing things that were not there.

Mental illness is not something someone can control. Whether its auditory of visual hallucinations, panic attacks, uncontrollable mood swings or even a complete disconnect from reality, those suffering from mental illness are often just as confused and afraid of their behavior as those around them.

Yet, our society often uses mental illness to blame the victims for the inconvenience of their plight. Popular television shows such as Criminal Minds often feature mentally ill people committing horrendous acts of violence, school-aged children use “bipolar” and “schizo” as insults and even our supposedly educated political elite, who are responsible for enacting laws to help the mentally ill, take to social media and broadcast television to claim mental illness is the reason for mass shootings despite research clearly showing those with mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

The way we stigmatize and stereotype mental illness in America goes further than a lack of education on the issue. It’s cruelty, and it needs to change.

This is not the first time I’ve shared my views on this particular topic, and previous experience tells me some readers are shaking their heads thinking about their friend or family member with depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder. Obviously, this isn’t their shortcoming. The problem must lie with others. After all, their friend never said anything about it.

They’re wrong. Having a mentally ill friend doesn’t absolve someone from prejudice just like having an African American friend doesn’t disqualify someone from holding racist views.

Socially, we have a damaging, dangerous and mean way of looking at and discussing mental illness, and as each one of us is a member of our society, we are all responsible, including me. All of us, from school teachers to mental health professionals, need to teach empathy and understanding of mental illness and call out fearmongering and false claims when we see them.

If you take nothing else from this column, remember Aristotle’s Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. That’s it. That’s all we have to do. There are no asterisks, no exceptions or exemptions and no fine print. Regardless of a person’s skin color, sexuality, gender, religion, politics and yes, even mental health, just be kind and maybe, just maybe, bring a casserole.

Thomas is the managing editor of the Newton County Appeal. He can be reached at thoward@newtoncountyappeal.com

Obituaries

Services for Mrs. Harriet “Tootsie” Burroughs Clark were held Friday, Aug. 16, at noon at Stephens... READ MORE