Why We Don't Take Mental Disorders Seriously
Outside of more extreme illnesses like schizophrenia, mental illness isn't always taken seriously. Why is this? Possibly because they aren't concrete illnesses. We understand physical illnesses because we all get them. Even if someone has never had cancer or kidney failure, we know from getting colds and intestinal illnesses that physical sickness is a real thing. Most people don't suffer from mental illnesses or don't realize they do. About 4% of Americans suffer from bipolar disorder, 10% from depression, 8% from self harm, 8% from ADHD, and 5% from eating disorders. Since it's an experience most of us won't have, it's easy to be dismissive. If things go wrong with our physical bodies, why do we have such a hard time understanding that things can go wrong with our minds? After all, our brains are a physical part of our body, so it makes sense that things will go wrong with such a complex organ.
Reasons Mental Illnesses Aren't Taken Seriously
Anyone can be diagnosed with a mental illness, right? I often come across the suggestion that anyone who goes to a psychiatrist would be diagnosed with some kind of disorder. People who make this claim never back it up with any evidence. It's more of an assumption. However, among the most troubled members of our society, those in prison, half will receive a diagnosis of mental illness. In many cases, their illness is worsened by drug use or caused by it. Members of the US military undergo lots of stresses including combat and long separations from their families but even here diagnosis rates are about 25%. Obviously rates of diagnosis would be lower among the general population. So, no, not everyone would be diagnosed with a mental disorder.
I think we also want to hold people accountable for their actions, so we're reluctant to give them excuses. When people do terrible things, we're angry with them and want them to pay. We want to believe they must have known what they did was wrong. We find it hard to accept that there are people who really are not in control of their behavior. It goes against the idea of free will that explains good and evil in religions and is the basis for our justice systems.
When it comes to eating disorders, people are horrified at the idea of someone who has access to plenty of food not eating it when people are starving around the world. It seems selfish and stupid. This question asked on Yahoo! Answers assumes these disorders are the result of privilege.
"Why does anorexia only seem to affect spoiled, rich, Western girls? You never hear of starving girls in the Indian slums getting anorexia? Or the poor Africans in ghetto's don't seem to be afflicted by this disorder? Why is this? It seems logical to say this "disease" only ever affects white girls with too much time on their hands to sit around feeling sorry for themselves! Where are the statistics of anorexia sufferers in Third World Countries?!"
There actually are anorexics and bulimics in third world countries. Males and females of all races, ages and social classes suffer from these disorders. Anorexia is the most deadly of all mental illnesses, killing about 1 in 5 sufferers within 20 years of onset. According to the Huffington Post article National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Get in the Know:
"...eating disorders look much like our population, affecting every socio-economic demographic -- young/old, female/male, wealthy/poor, heterosexual/gay, Christian/Jewish, African-American, Hispanic, Asian and, yes, Caucasian. The rate of occurrence is also particularly high among college students, athletes and gay men. There may be challenges that are unique to each demographic -- men and African-American women are less inclined to seek help, for example -- but bottom line is that an eating disorder is a life-threatening illness no matter who you are."
Self harm, social anxiety, depression and any other problem we might associate with privileged people in the west who supposedly have too much time to sit around and feel sorry for themselves can also be found in the slums of India and Africa. These disorders are reactions to suffering and stress that affect all nations and social classes.
Some people also believe mental illnesses are over-diagnosed by drug companies and health professionals out to enrich themselves. They'll point to lower levels of diagnoses in poor countries where people would be expected to have more stresses. This ignores the possibility that mental illnesses are seriously under-diagnosed in poor countries. Approximately 75% of Americans and Europeans who suffer from a mental disorder will never seek treatment, so under-diagnosis is also a serious problem in first world countries. And perceptions that the problem is the sufferer's fault, all in their head or a weakness may prevent many people from seeking help.
Many Americans Know Little about Mental Illnesses
Almost half the public - 44 percent - report knowing only a little or almost nothing at all about mental illnesses. But asked whether they would benefit from knowing more about the warning signs of mental illness, 84 percent said yes....one-third of Americans mistakenly think that emotional or personal weakness is a major cause of mental illnesses and almost as many think old age is a major cause. In fact, research shows the causes of mental illnesses are genetic and environmental factors, traumatic events, and other physical illnesses and injuries that have psychiatric side effects.
National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)
Genetics and Mental Disorders
Many mental disorders like Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders and Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are being increasingly linked to genetics. A genetic predisposition to develop mental illnesses seems to run in families.
"Five major mental illnesses depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD,schizophrenia and autism — are traceable to the same inherited genetic variations, according to the largest genome-wide study of its kind. These variations account for 17-28 percent of mental illness risk."
-- 5 Major Mental Illnesses Traced to Same Genetic Variations, psychcentral.com
"The genetic research seems to indicate that some people -- mostly, though not all, female -- may have a latent vulnerability to eating disorders, which might never be "turned on" if they weren't exposed to particular influences, just as a predisposition to alcoholism can remain latent unless the person takes a drink. Since in our culture today, dieting behaviors are more intense, it's exposing that latent vulnerability more now than in previous generations."
-- Anorexia and Bulimia: Cracking the Genetic Code, webmd.com
So, many of us may be prone to mental illnesses but we will only develop them if a trigger of some kind turns them on, such as weight bullying, an abusive childhood or becoming a crime victim. Many people with mental issues are afraid to admit they have a problem and seek help out of fear of being accused of being weak or looking for excuses for their troubled behavior. Perhaps, increased understanding of the physical and genetic causes of mental illness will reduce the stigma and guilt and encourage more people to seek out help.