Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.
~ David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”
The quote above immediately reminds me of those who suffer with mental illness, and the difficult yet frequently experienced challenges imposed upon such people. Mental illness can be an extremely isolating experience, invisibly dividing the “sick” from the “healthy.”
No matter the type of mental illness, my guess is that nearly all of those afflicted have felt, at some point during their illness, a sense of separation, an absence of belonging, an unusual and nagging feeling of being “different.”
I think that as a community, we can find relief in the idea that so many among us have a story, an experience, a loss of some sort, or a loved one or friend who has suffered from mental illness.
Although it can often feel like you are fighting your disease alone, the reality is an estimated that over 26 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Whether it is schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, those who suffer from mental illness all have something in common: Each has struggled with feeling different, struggled to be well, and struggled to make change toward recovery.
As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. Recovery from a mental illness often is successfully driven by a positive recovery community, wherein the sufferer and their loved ones feel supported by others walking a similar recovery journey. A treatment team of experts dealing with your diagnoses becomes an invaluable part of your “recovery community.” An organized team of experts provide specialized care, consistent support, and new coping tools in a way that would likely feel nearly unbearable if undertaken alone.
In addition to working with a treatment team, it is often helpful to belong to support groups, group therapy, and to simply have a conversation with someone who truly understands your illness. Sadly, there are two persistent barriers that prevent those affected by mental illness from connecting with others, as well as accessing treatment.
Stigma, or a negative association with mental illness, can greatly influence an individual’s desire to reach out for help. The fear of being labeled or written off as “mentally ill” can hinder many from seeking help. Part of the problem is the myriad mental illness stereotypes and misconceptions that float through our culture.
Archaic thinking leads people to think that those with mental illness are weak, or even damaged, if they admit to having mental illness. An unfortunate ignorance surrounds the truth about mental illness. Sufferers fear speaking openly about having a mental illness. The hoops insurance companies expect people to jump through when seeking treatment suppress the ability to access and support loved ones’ mental health and emotional well-being.
“People (with mental illness) are subjected to such ridicule in the media, in the press, in the arts,” said former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. “It’s hard for people to have the courage, especially if they are facing the disability of a mental illness, to stand up.”
Many who suffer from mental illness (including my clients, most of whom suffer from eating disorders) are simply unable to access treatment in an effective, affordable way. Insurance companies are notorious for denying mental health benefits. This leaves countless Americans to suffer their illnesses alone and in silence. It also leaves far too many compromised in a potentially life-threatening state of being.
A huge part of the problem has been that insurance companies are able to get away with violating mental health parity, and deny individuals access to life-saving or life-altering treatment. We have been anxiously waiting for increased transparency in the way that insurance companies decide what is medically necessary, as well as the full implementation and final rules and regulations for mental health parity.
“Parity for treatment of mental illness and substance abuse is a human- and civil-rights issue,” said Kennedy. “You just want to treat this issue as if it were your child, or your parent, or your sister or brother. The question is, are we going to be able to change this so that we actually treat one another the way we ourselves want to be treated?” It’s time that those suffering from mental illness are able to access treatment in the same way as those with a physical illness.
So, we know the facts: mental illness exists, it’s prevalent, and treatment is available (although it’s hard to access). Mental health parity is the law, but insurance companies often violate it.
With those facts in mind, we encourage you to stand up and say, “I am one of the 26 million who suffer and deserve access to treatment!” Demand your rights. Demand that you are not stigmatized because you have a brain illness. Demand that you are not treated poorly because your disease affects your brain instead of some other part of your body.