One half of all life time cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.  2.4 million Americans live with schizophrenia, 5.7 million Americans live with bipolar disorder, 14.8 million live with major depressive disorder, and 40 million live with anxiety disorders.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10-24 years of age.  Less than one third of adults and one half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in the United States in a given year.  In addition, one in six children has a developmental disability.  Over the past 12 years, autism prevalence increased 289.5%.

We all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences.  Our background and life experiences shape the people that we are, our attitudes, beliefs and behavior.  Stigma toward mental illness and developmental disabilities is one of the leading reasons that people do not seek treatment.

 “Stigma refers to attitudes and beliefs that lead people to reject, avoid, or fear those they perceive as being different”.

Stigma results in discrimination and prejudice in employment, housing, health care, relationships and self-esteem.  People who feel stigmatized begin to believe negative things they hear and see and avoid seeking the help they need. Far too long the fear of mental illness has been profoundly destructive to people’s lives.  In fact, mental illnesses are just as real as other illnesses, and they are like other illnesses in most ways.  Yet fear and stigma persist resulting in lost opportunities for individuals to seek treatment and improve or recover.

You may not know that you are stigmatizing people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  There are some things you can do to determine if you or someone you know is stigmatizing people.  Ask yourself, do I or do people I know use words like “crazy, psycho and nuts” to describe people or treat people differently because they have a mental illness?  You can examine your own thoughts, words, beliefs and actions and ask yourself what do you think, believe and how do I act when I am with people with a mental illness or developmental disability?  Do you support people with disabilities and/ or mental illness?  What beliefs do you share with your family, friends, and children?

If you know someone with a mental illness or developmental disability you can make a difference in their life.  Your participation in their recovery is of great importance by providing help accessing services in your community, transportation, housing, taking medication, help attaining financial support, health care and providing a voice at times when they do not have one.

Other support strategies include learning about their diagnosis, symptoms, and side effects from medications, recognizing that they may be afraid, confused, anxious or not able to understand their illness.  Listen carefully to what your friend or family member has to say and share your thoughts and feelings with them.  Encourage them to be an active participant in their treatment and that they are a contributing member of society and their family.  You can offer to go with your friend or family member to appointments, planning meetings or to access services.  Just like any other illness recovery is a journey.  Each step takes us closer to who we want to be and how we want to live our lives.

Gogebic Community Mental Health Authority is joining the nationwide Mental Health Awareness Month to “Stomp Out Stigma” associated with mental illness and developmental disabilities by facilitating the county’s first annual Walk A Mile In My Shoes Rally on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at the new pavilion in Eddy Park on Sunday Lake in Wakefield.  Registration is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. followed by a welcome program at 1:00 p.m. and a symbolic walk at 1:30 p.m.  For more information, or to register, call Missy Lane at Gogebic CMH at 906-229-6100 or email mlane@www.gccmh.org.

Stigma and Access to Mental Health Services