• Health & Wellness

    Breaking the Social Stigma of Mental Illness

young man sad, depressed holding his head in his hands
By Filza Hussain, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Health System behavioral health provider.

As a psychiatrist who also is a self-confessed film buff, I get very excited to watch films with psychological themes. Whether it’s a film based on a Nobel-prize-winning schizophrenic mathematical genius in “A Beautiful Mind" or the fictional story “The Sixth Sense,” about a boy who sees dead people, I'm enthralled.

I find that popular media plays a big role in informing the general masses and shaping opinions. So, imagine my frustration as I watch films where orderlies dressed in white from head to toe subdue a patient in a straitjacket or scenes where doctors use shock treatments as punishment. Some of these movies are old classics, and certainly portray the sentiment and stigma surrounding mental illness at the time. Yet, the stigma still exists, and this can be quite debilitating for patients as they struggle to find balance between wanting help and not being judged. Personally, I find the stigma and misconceptions popularized by the media to be a hurdle I jump over almost daily to create a treatment plan for my patients.

So let’s try and bust a few myths:

  • Lithium. Contrary to what some songs may lead you to believe, lithium is a very useful medication when monitored carefully, used for the right reasons and taken as prescribed. I wish all the patients who have been helped by lithium would get together and write a song about its benefits.

  • Straitjackets. I have visited psychiatry wards in several different countries, some which may qualify as third-world. I have never seen an actual straitjacket. In the U.S., there are checks and balances to ensure that the least restrictive and most humane methods are used to restrain psychiatrically-ill patients to protect them from hurting themselves or others.
  • Detaining patients. Doctors do not have any power or desire to lock anyone up and throw away the key. Our aim is to hospitalize for safety and treatment and bring the patient back into the community as quickly and safely as possible.
  • Shock therapy. Electroconvulsive treatment (shock therapy) is not used to subdue patients. It is a treatment method that is safe in many different circumstances and extremely effective for specific conditions. Physicians will not use this treatment method casually, and your consent is an important step to moving forward with this treatment.
  • MedicationsNot all psychiatric medications are addictive. Your provider usually is more concerned about giving you addictive medications than you are. So, your provider likely will prescribe these medications judiciously.
  • HypnosisFinally, hypnotherapy (hypnosis) can be a useful, non-medication treatment for chronic pain or smoking cessation. Not everyone responds to hypnosis, and a hypnotherapist cannot make you follow their commands, such as telling you to rob a bank. If you fall asleep during this relaxed state, you automatically will be out of hypnosis when you wake up.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of mental illness myths, but it’s a start. In this age of computers and the internet — when information is at our fingertips — let’s try to inform ourselves about mental illness. Let’s break the stigma so those needing help can seek it and those able to help can offer it without battling preconceived notions.