The brain is a mysterious organ. Unlike the heart, lungs or kidneys, its workings are shrouded in a veil of complexity. For all that we know about the chemical and electrical activity it exhibits, for all our mathematical models of neurons and synapses we simply cannot fathom how its activity gives rise to self-awareness and consciousness.
Throughout history most people have viewed this consciousness as a uniquely human trait. Yes, we are learning that this is not the case and other animals also have consciousness, but the idea that the human mind is special persists.
Many people cherish the idea that we are set apart from the rest of life on earth, that we are more important as a result of the functioning of our brains. And perhaps this is one reason why mental illness carries such stigma.
When other organs malfunction modern medicine can often repair the damage, or even replace the damaged part (heart valve replacement, pacemakers, kidney dialysis, transplants). There is confidence in these treatments: we can understand a surgeon replacing a worn out valve in the same way that we understand an auto mechanic swapping out a fouled spark plug.
When it is the brain that suffers damage or illness things become much less certain. Because we do not understand its inner workings and how consciousness arises from them there is a deep fear that mental illness will corrupt who we are. That we would no longer be ourselves. We fear the unknown.
Most mental illnesses are also invisible. There are no outward physical signs that somebody has depression, schizophrenia or Bi-polar disorder. You never know. And that not knowing triggers fear, compounded by a general ignorance about mental illnesses.
The media doesn’t help (surprise, surprise!) by actively seeking to explain many violent acts as the result of mental illnesses, and often describing the antagonist in thrillers and horror movies as mentally ill. Schizophrenia in particular has a long history of being unfairly linked to violent behavior. I’m not saying that schizophrenics are never violent, but the reality is far, far removed from the picture painted in popular culture.
One statistic relating to mental illness and violence does stand out, however. A person who suffers from a mental illness is far more likely to harm or kill themselves. The misplaced fear of the mentally ill person needs to be replaced by a fear for them.
Because you can help by fighting the stigma, by being there when somebody you know is affected — because it’s more likely than not that somebody among your family and friends will suffer from a mental illness at some point.
Mentally ill people are often afraid to disclose their illness because of the stigma. It can be a sure-fire way to lose friends overnight. It might lose them their employment. How would that feel? Not only are you ill but now you’re on your own with no job. “Good luck with that!” Can you understand why that would push some people to kill themselves?So yes, disclosing mental illness can carry a sizable risk. But not disclosing means that there’s no chance to get the necessary support. It’s a catch-22 situation, and all because of the stigma. You wouldn’t shun somebody because they had asthma, would you? So why do it when an illness affects their brain?It’s not a difficult concept. Here’s a person who is ill. Support them. Simple.