To mark Mental Health Month, we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Caroline Carney, chief medical officer of Magellan Healthcare. Dr. Carney shed some light on stigma, barriers to mental health services and ways we can all help all friends and family get the treatment they need to live a healthy, vibrant life.

Why is there still a stigma around seeking help or treatment for mental health concerns?

Dr. Carney: I think we first need to talk about what stigma is, and where it comes from.

Unfortunately, people with mental illness have been stigmatized by others, and even by themselves. Mental illness is often still perceived as an indulgence, a sign of weakness, or as a character weakness. You also may find people who believe mental illness is something that is scary, or to be made fun of. So many myths exist about mental illness, including that it is the result of bad parenting. Popular culture continues to further the stereotypes and myths.

Further, self-stigmatization is a huge driver for this. Self-stigmatization occurs when shame and secrecy override even the most extreme of symptoms, preventing people from getting the help they need. Few people recognize how prevalent mental illness is.  We don’t talk about depression. We don’t talk about our own perceived failures. We don’t talk about how tough life can be, and often suffer through it in silence. Further, the symptoms themselves, whether depression, anxiety or psychotic disorders, often contribute to a sense of isolation. In the time of Facebook and Instagram, we are led to believe that everyone lives a happy and interesting life every day. If you feel you don’t measure up to what is shown on social media, it can then be perceived as a failure. This is especially true for adolescents, teens and college-aged kids. I’ve spoken recently to a young person who was afraid to talk to her best friend and to her mentor about her feelings of depression and loneliness. She was afraid they would think that she was weak and flawed—therefore not worthy of being a good friend. Instead, she suffered in silence, further worsening the symptoms until suicide became part of her daily thoughts. Most people around her would never recognize this incredible kid regularly thinks of suicide. This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario.

What can friends, family and coworkers do to help lessen that stigma and encourage people to seek help?

Dr. Carney: I think the biggest step is to support and withhold judgement. Family and friends need to be upfront about symptoms or conditions they’ve had in their own lives. I often advise that it is a normal, common thing to get treatment—it should be considered no different than getting treated for any medical condition. In some cases, friends and family may find themselves helping someone access treatment at a mental health provider or a primary care physician. Emphasizing that mental illness isn’t a sign of failure, and can actually be treated, is critically important. As a doctor, I have often counseled the loved ones of my patients that it can be frustrating to take care of a person in the thick of an episode of mental illness. The symptoms of depression, for instance, dampen ones motivation, support beliefs of hopelessness, and take away energy. It should be no surprise, then, that the person suffering from mental illness doesn’t want therapy. Don’t give up on them—understand that the disease itself influences getting treatment.

Treatment for mental illness doesn’t happen overnight—it can often take weeks or even longer for a response to occur. Family, friends, coworkers, and providers shouldn’t give up.  Look for incremental change, not overnight cures.

What is the biggest misperception about mental illness? 

Dr. Carney: The biggest misperception is that mental illness isn’t an illness—that is something one brings upon oneself. Mental illness is caused by biological, genetic, and environmental factors.

Can you live a life of recovery?

Dr. Carney: Absolutely! Because mental illness is a medical condition, it’s important to know about different mental conditions and their associated treatment options. A common myth is that the illness will go away if a stressor is removed, or time passes, or a person just thinks positive thoughts or prays. Think about a physical illness such as diabetes. Diabetes won’t go away with positive thinking, and neither will a condition like depression. Mental illness can be treated, and the earlier treatment is initiated, the better the chances of recovery. Finding licensed, trained providers is essential. Using social supports like faith or your peers can be an extension of, not a replacement for, treatment.  Importantly, having an episode of depression or an anxiety disorder may only occur once in a lifetime. If the root causes are uncovered, cognitive distortions are addressed, and if appropriate, medication used correctly, the morbidity of mental illness can be markedly reduced, and may never come back. Even people with serious persistent mental illness, such as schizophrenia, can live a life of recovery with the right supports and treatment.

But I also think it’s essential that we need to educate people that the illness may return. This doesn’t mean that a person with mental illness failed. It means that the illness may be chronic, but the symptoms can still be treated.

The most vital concept to remember is that recovery is possible, and can be permanent.  When it’s not permanent, treatment can be ongoing and very successful.

What can providers/clinicians do to help reduce stigma?

Dr. Carney: I think there are a few ways that everyone – not only providers or clinicians – can help counter stigma around mental illness.

  • Know the facts about mental illness—read about mental illness from expert and advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute of Mental Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and other sites.  Rumor and innuendo never serve the facts.
  • Continue to reinforce that this is an illness, and not a sign of weakness or failure.
  • Take a look at your own attitudes and how you think about mental illness—whether your own, in someone you care about or the stranger you see on the street.  Understand that no one would ever want to be depressed, or be troubled by hallucinations. Mental illness is an illness, no less than heart disease or cancer.
  • Choose your words carefully—Often we refer to someone who has diabetes as a diabetic, or a person with schizophrenia as a schizophrenic. People are more than their disease, whatever it may be. We need to preserve personal dignity by recognizing that our words matter—use terms like “he is a man with schizophrenia,” and be mindful of common phrases like “crazy” or “nuts.”
  • Provide support by keeping your loved one or friend safe from harm. Participate in therapy when asked. Avoid passing judgement, especially about how quickly someone’s recovery may be progressing, and continue to support the receipt of treatment.
  • Take an honest look about what environmental factors may be contributing to the illness.  Evaluate short-term and long-term stressors.  Just like we would monitor the diet for someone with diabetes, we should recognize that environmental factors contribute to mental illness, just as they do to physical health.
  • Never accept or foster stereotypes.