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Letter: The stigma of mental illness

Mental illness and diabetes share many characteristics: both are serious, chronic health conditions that have a profound effect on quality and longevity of life; the symptoms of both diseases often go unnoticed until the disease has progressed to a point where there are severe consequences for the patient; the long-term consequences of untreated diabetes and untreated mental illness may go unrecognized by patients and families; and most importantly, both diseases can be managed effectively with appropriate treatment and support.

However, while the more than 25.8 million people in the United States with diabetes are likely to have many health care resources available to them, the more than 57.7 million American adults that suffer from a mental disorder will often face many obstacles in obtaining treatment. Many patients don’t seek treatment because of the stigma associated with mental illness and limited access to services.

Social stigma arises from the fact that, unlike the symptoms and effects of diabetes that can be measured and quantified by lab tests, the symptoms of mental illness are behaviors. Many people see these behaviors as character flaws instead of treatable neurobiological disease and rather than offering support, pass judgment.

If your spouse, parent, or child had diabetes, what kind of support would you give them? Would you help them get to health care appointments? Would you help them obtain appropriate medications and take them as directed? Would you help them follow a diet and exercise plan? If your loved one experienced a diabetic coma, would you seek emergency care and advocate for them to receive appropriate and necessary care to help them recover? Most people would answer these questions with a resounding “Yes!” Unfortunately many people with mental illness or facing a mental health crisis do not have this same level of support.

Mental illness is a part of the human condition — we need to come together and support appropriate care and treatment for those that suffer from mental illness. When one in every four Americans suffers from mental illness, this support is crucial to the health and wellbeing of our family members, friends, neighbors, and communities.

Wendy Miller