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SINGH: To raise awareness, we need open discussion

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April 7 marked the birthday of the World Health Organization and this year’s theme is depression, the No. 1 cause of ill health. More than 300 million people experience it worldwide, and about 20 million in the United States alone. It’s surprising that there isn’t enough awareness on how ubiquitous it is as 1 in 4 people will suffer from depression before the age of 24. Increased investment is needed in many countries since many societies don’t acknowledge the gravity of the disease. There is little to no social support — even in well-developed countries — as 50 percent of those diagnosed do not seek treatment. There is so little support toward mental illnesses that even governments, on average, only invest 3 percent of their health budgets in mental health. There is now a greater need than ever for investment. Statistics show that for every U.S. $1 financed toward depression and anxiety treatment leads to a profit of $4 in better health.

Mental illness alludes to a variety of mental health conditions that are disorders that affect an individual’s mood, thought process and behavior. Mental disorders are fairly common in that nearly 1 in 5 people (42.5 million) in the United States is affected and around 450 million are suffering worldwide. As common as they are, society still views the symptoms of disorders as threatening and absurd. Such attitudes cultivate stigma and discrimination to those affected, making it harder for those that do suffer to come out and receive the help and attention they need. There are two different types of mental disorder stigmas, social and perceived stigma. Social stigma is distinguished by the discriminating behaviors toward those affected due to the psychiatric label they were given. The latter, perceived stigma, is the incarnation by the sufferer of their perceptions of discrimination by society, often leading to humiliation and treatment setbacks.

A two-year (September of 2013 — May of 2015) survey created by Andrea Armstrong, a partner of The National Institute of Mental Illness, indicated that in urbanized countries, only 7 percent of those who responded thought that those who suffer from mental illnesses are a threat. But this statistic is more than doubled in developing countries as 15 percent of the respondents thought that those with mental disorders are violent. This isn’t surprising, as mental illnesses aren’t recognized as legitimate diseases. Disorders, like as depression, are just seen as a passing phase that a person can snap out of at any time. In countries like India and China, those that are professionally diagnosed bear the burden of “shaming” their families and are kept at home and seldom let out. This taboo on mental disorders is an encumbrance on those affected, making their lives a lot harder.

This brings into question what causes stigmas? History has shown that people affected by mental health problems have always been treated differently, brutalized and even excommunicated. This originated from the early beliefs about the causes of mental health related problems such as demonic or spiritual possession, all which attempted to explain the illnesses. These explanations created the ultimate fear, caution and discrimination of the those affected. The prejudice is further perpetuated through social media and movies. An example is the cinematic depiction of schizophrenia, which shows the affected person as extremely aggressive, having no control of their actions and even homicidal — all simply reinforcing the biased beliefs.

It is important for us to openly talk about mental disorders to raise awareness. Celebrities such as J.K. Rowling, Demi Lovato and Michael Irvine help relieve the stigmas against mental illness and spreading the knowledge. We find out about those that depressed through openly speaking about it. People need to be educated on how to get the help and treatment they need, and family members and friends of those affected need to know how to comfort and assist their loved ones.

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Mondays.

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