Letter: Mental illness needs to be understood

Although advancements in the diagnosis, treatment and acceptance of mental illnesses in the world have been beneficial to the growth of our society, it still is perhaps one of the least understood problems we face. Oftentimes, mental illness is considered just someone’s lack of personal discipline, and therefore deemed to be the victim’s fault. In reality, mental illness results from genetic abnormalities, the brain changing to cope with environmental factors, or a combination of both. However, our understanding and helping fellow members of our community often falls short of their needs. Society often perceives mental illnesses as laughable due to the fact that they don’t truly understand its seriousness as opposed to physical illness. Compared to cancer patients, for example, people suffering from mental illness find themselves further outcast because of their disorder. Our goal is multi-faceted: We want to try to figure out why this gap of sympathy exists and in what forms, how that gap can be addressed and to raise the general awareness and understanding of mental illness in our community.
First, we wanted to find the exact depth of this sympathy gap in our school. We drafted a survey about how various media (including television, movies, songs, etc) portray people with mental illnesses versus physical illness. We asked if the respondent knew anyone with a mental illness (including, but not limited to schizophrenia, depression, ADD/ADHD, Tourette’s, autism, OCD, self-mutilation or post traumatic stress disorder); if they knew anyone with physical diseases (including, but not limited to, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, heart attack, stroke or emphysema); and lists of titles of TV shows, movies, songs or other media that joke about these two things. We also asked students and faculty what they “perceive as more serious, life-altering or devastating: mental illness or physical disease and why?” We found the results surprising. In response to the last question, 64 percent of respondents said that mental illness is more serious, while only 22 percent responded that they consider physical illness more serious. Fourteen percent said that they were equally serious. However, only 74 percent said they knew someone with a mental illness compared to 95 percent who said they knew someone with a physical disease. We believe this shows how beneficial mental health education is for students, and wonder if a similar survey given to the public would yield the same results.
We found that a serious and arguably politically incorrect treatment of truly ill people in the world is encouraged by the media. Any given week, shock comedy shows like South Park or Family Guy make fun of people with a varying array of mental sicknesses, but you would be hard pressed to find such a blatant attack on a chemotherapy patient (these two titles were the top answers on our survey’s question asking respondents to list media that make fun of mental illness). Why is this so? We think that the biggest factor is that mental illnesses are so unfathomable to the general public that in an effort to bring them to a level we can wrap our minds around, we make fun of them. Another factor is that more people understand what it’s like to be physically sick and feel they have a greater risk of developing physical issues than mental ones. For the most part, the causes of cancer and heart disease and respiratory disease are common knowledge, but understanding mental disorders like schizophrenia or OCD is far more complex and many people have no idea what their causes or symptoms are. One example from the media that helps contribute to Americans’ understanding of schizophrenia is the 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. By making the main character, math genius John Nash’s schizophrenic delusions seem at first real to viewers, it helps them understand how difficult the disease can be to cope with. But for every “A Beautiful Mind”-type movie, there are others that degrade suffers of mental illness.
We asked our counselor, Mrs. Elaine Collins, the best way to end this inappropriate disregard for human suffering. She said to keep doing exactly what we are doing, that is, to keep discussion about it as frequent and open as possible. We drafted this letter to encourage readers to visit our newly created PowerPoint Presentation available online (go to the Meeker School District homepage at http://meeker.k12.co.us/, then click the “Class Pages” tab. From there, scroll down and click the “HS Health” heading, and follow the link to Mr. Strate’s class page. Click the Mental Illnesses2.pptx link to view the presentation. With this educational information, we hope to increase awareness of mental illness and its effects.
Fourth-period health class
Meeker High School