It was with great sadness that we all saw the tragic news of Robin Williams’ suicide. For years, mental health has been a taboo topic. While the passing of this great actor is horrifying, we are only aware of it because of his stardom. How many others have met a tragic fate like his, but we just do not hear about it because they are ordinary people? It affects all ages, all races, and socioeconomic statuses. It is not a phenomena located to the U.S. but all across the globe.
True that many people have trouble gaining access to mental healthcare sources, often for insurance coverage reasons or lack of available providers. But more often, help isn’t pursued because of the stigma attached to mental health diagnoses. All too often patients are embarrassed to admit they have a mental health problem. Yet, diseases such as anxiety and depression are very prevalent in our society. These conditions are chronic medical problems, just like diabetes and hypertension. But patients are often made to feel that these diseases are just in their head and that they can just “get over it.” This does not just happen in our general society, but when they seek medical help as well. Patients do not understand that even physical pain can be an underlying sign of depression. And many feel that their healthcare providers brush it off as “just depression.” So, rather than face these stigmas and embarrassments, many choose to deny or hide their illnesses. They are left untreated, which allows tragedies like suicide to occur.
How can mental healthcare stigmas be ended?
1. More public education is needed to teach that mental illnesses are diseases like other chronic diseases. Patients have no control over this disease and cannot just make it go away.
2. Science has shown that some chemical and hormonal imbalances play a role, and we need more research into understanding the exact etiology.
3. Health insurance companies need to cover medical services for these diseases exactly as they do for other diseases. Often, it is covered in a separate fashion, which causes difficulty for the patient to find available medical services.
4. Patients should never be made to feel that their symptoms are all in their head. I have heard this all too many times in my practice. I doubt that most physicians use that terminology. However, that is how some patients interpret what is being said to them. We need to be careful in the language we are using and provide careful explanations that the patient understands.
5. Understanding of mental illnesses should be addressed in schools. All too frequently, a child is placed on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) program and gets labeled. We need to be careful how we label these children so that they are not embarrassed.
6. Mental healthcare services need to be more readily available. Many suffering patients have difficulty finding medical services. More training needs to be provided and more teams formulated. A person struggling with these diseases should not have to wait weeks for treatment. Depression can be just as fatal as an acute myocardial infarction.
Healthcare stigmas are proving to be quite dangerous. We need to make an active attempt to overturn these and make the truth of mental illnesses known. No one should feel that they have reached the end of the rope and suicide is the only option. All the unknown victims of mental illness who have passed this way should not have died in vain. As physicians or healthcare workers and as members of society, we need to help those who are suffering be able to accept their disease and seek help without embarrassment.
Dr. Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP, is a family physician in South River, New Jersey. She holds board certification from the American Board of Family Medicine and is affiliated with St. Peter’s University Hospital and Raritan Bay Hospital. Dr. Girgis earned her medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. She completed her internship and residency at Sacred Heart Hospital, through Temple University and she was recognized as intern of the year. Over the course of her practice, Dr. Girgis has continued to earn awards and recognition from her peers and a variety of industry bodies, including: Patients’ Choice Award, 2011-2012, Compassionate Doctor Recognition, 2011-2012. Dr. Girgis’ primary goal as a physician remains ensuring that each of her patients receives the highest available standard of medical care.