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Mental Illness—More Normal Than You Think

We have to remember that those with mental illnesses are not to be feared, avoided or ignored.

Written by: Michael Milgraum

About 20 percent of Americans suffer from some type of mental disorder and five percent suffer from a serious mental disorder, according to recent article published in the Washington Post.

These disorders can range from those that cause profound disruption of normal life to those that have a more moderate impact. Nonetheless, as a therapist who has worked with more than a thousand people over the years, I know that mental disorders never feel like a light matter to those who are suffering from them.

Mental disorders can heighten stress, negatively impact on physical health, and disrupt social relationships. 

What is so compelling about these statistics is that they show us that those suffering from mental disorders are not few or far between. They are all around us—family members, friends, coworkers, etc. It is ironic that a significant stigma attaches to a condition that is relatively common.

Unfortunately, countless people live in shame about their condition, carefully hiding it from others and pretending to be “normal.” Such behavior is a reaction to the belief that having a mental illness means that the person is not reliable or stable. While it is true that some mental illnesses are associated with instability, a wide range of them are not. I have treated many people who are high achievers and valuable contributors to society and who shoulder substantial family, community and workplace responsibilities. 

In therapy, one of the first things I try to help people do is accept that they have a mental illness and let go of the shame associated with it. One of the most powerful ways to bring about this acceptance is when I see patients in group therapy. In group sessions, patients see that there are others like them, individuals who struggle with anxiety, depression, obsessions and other painful symptoms. Seeing that there are others with these problems helps patients start to relax and stop pretending to be perfect. 

In fact, it is my observation that the quest for perfection is a very important factor in causing or worsening mental disorders. Unfortunately, American culture is excessively focused on people appearing perfect. Images of models are digitally altered to make them skinnier or erase the slightest of blemishes.

Over focus on the wealth, beauty and witticisms of media stars makes people believe that they too are supposed to be like that all the time. Even our political elections look more like a popularity contest based on sound bites, rather than a serious discussion of the issues.

We have to remember that those with mental illnesses are not to be feared, avoided or ignored. They are just people like you or me. 

Some have suffered terrible trauma which contributed to their conditions. For others, their disorder was caused by a combination of genetics and painful experiences. But whatever the cause, the truth is that if people are willing to face their condition honestly and enter treatment, then they frequently develop more wisdom, depth and compassion than you would find in the average person on the street.  And that is nothing to be ashamed of.  

Michael Milgraum, Esq., Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Silver Spring.  His new novel Never Forget My Soul tells the stories of traumatized individuals who enter group therapy and find psychological and spiritual healing. Dr. Milgraum can be contacted at DrMilgraum@gmail.com or (301)  588-5861. 

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