Societal views, attitudes and beliefs about mental illness — often influenced by personal knowledge, cultural stereotypes and media stories — have a major effect on the way people interact with and help support people with mental illness. The failure to understand mental illness is evident throughout history and has contributed to the stigmatization of people with mental illness. For these individuals, the lack of understanding of mental illness has led others to believe that they are “sick,” “crazy,” “dangerous,” “unpredictable,” “violent,” “unsociable” or “defective.”
Stigma — one of the greatest challenges facing people with mental illness — refers to the negative labels, attitudes and behaviors toward a person because he or she has certain characteristics. Throughout history, people with mental illness have been discriminated against and treated differently due to the widespread misunderstanding of mental illness. The fact is that a large percentage of the population is affected by mental illness — whether dealing with a mental health issue or being affected by the mental illness of a loved one.
A recent survey administered by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) suggested that Americans views of mental health are changing. The Mental Health and Suicide Survey was administered online via a Harris Poll to 2,020 American adults over the age of 18 to assess participants’ opinions, experiences, attitudes and knowledge about mental health. Similar to previous surveys, the results indicated that only 12 percent of adults had received mental health treatment in the past year.
Despite the relatively low percentage of people who received treatment for mental health conditions, 89 percent felt that mental health and physical health were equally important aspects of overall health, and the majority of adults felt that mental health services such as suicide prevention and depression treatment were fundamental to overall health. In the past, receiving mental health treatment meant that there was something inherently wrong with the person seeking treatment. Contrary to these past views, the new findings indicate that nearly 38 percent of adults believe that seeing a mental health professional is a sign of strength, rather than as a weakness.
Personal experiences with mental health
The survey results also indicate that one-third of adults had ever been diagnosed with a mental health problem. The most common diagnoses are depression (21 percent) and anxiety (20 percent). An additional 47 percent report that they think they might have had a mental health condition at some point.
While women are more likely to disclose that they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, it appears that the stigmatization of men having a mental illness prevented them from disclosing they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Compared to women (37 percent), men (28 percent) are significantly less likely to disclose that they had ever been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Attitudes toward and knowledge about suicide
Suicide is a major problem in the United States that is often stigmatized due to beliefs about the morality of the act. Ending one’s own life is viewed by about half of adults as a way to escape pain, while 39 percent believe it is a selfish act, 29 percent think it is impulsive and 20 percent believe it is a sign of weakness or cowardice. On the other hand, 18 percent of adults believe suicide is a person’s right.
The majority of adults (81 percent) disagree with the statement that if a person wants to die by suicide, there is nothing anyone could do about it. Almost half (43 percent) believe suicide could always or often be prevented. What is most surprising, and indicated that the views of mental illness are moving in a more positive direction, are the findings that 63 percent of adults believe that better access to psychotherapy or medication, 62 percent of adults believe that better training for health care providers, 60 percent believe that more research into how to help people and why people die by suicide, and 59 percent believe that educating the public about suicide prevention would help to reduce the number of people who die by suicide.
It seems that people are becoming more understanding of the need for mental health treatment and more understanding of suicide and why it happens to reduce the likelihood of people taking their own lives. The findings also suggest that many adults are recognizing some of the major barriers preventing people with mental health problems and those who are thinking about suicide from seeking help. The majority of adults believe that people thinking about suicide don’t seek help because they believe nothing would help, can’t afford or lack access to mental health services, are embarrassed or lack hope. Continuing to work toward reducing stigma could be beneficial for removing these barriers so that more people seek and receive mental health treatment.
The Sovereign Health Group is a leading provider of behavioral health treatment services to patients with substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. Please contact our 24/7 helpline for more information about Sovereign Health’s comprehensive and individualized behavioral health treatment programs.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.