Mental Illness in America

We’ve come a long way as far as cultural perception and stigma surrounding mental illness are concerned. As far back as ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, mental illness was viewed as divine punishment or unholy possession, and this perception continued on through the Middle Ages. In America, by the time the 18th century rolled around the perceptions had changed but the stigma had not. Although supernatural factors were no longer believed to be the common cause of mental illnesses, the lack of understanding and preconceived ideas about mental illnesses perpetuated the desire for the confinement of these individuals.

The first major move in the treatment of mental illness in America came from Dorothea Dix, an American teacher and author turned activist who sought to expose and change the horrific conditions of the mental institutions that existed throughout the nation. In the 1800s, the stipulations for institutionalization were vast and arbitrary. On top of the horrific terms on which people could be committed, the conditions in these places were shockingly terrible. One example of this occurred at Auburn Prison in 1821where the majority of 80 male patients in solitary confinement either broke down mentally or committed suicide. Dorothea saw the injustices these people faced — in her words, being kept “in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience!” —and pledged to help them the best she could.

Over a 40-year period, Dorothea was directly responsible for the United States government’s funding of 32 state psychiatric hospitals across the country. While her work did wonders for the advancement of people who are mentally ill, it also lead to mass institutionalization where any people seen as public nuisances or were viewed as dangerous were committed to these institutions.

The early 1900s offered some strides as well as some fallbacks. The use of electroshock therapy became widespread in the treatment of mental illness, often without the use of anesthesia. Patients were also subjected to frontal lobotomies and hydrotherapy where patients were submerged in or blasted with water as means of treatment. However, in the 1950s, new medications that could help stabilize unstable patients mixed with funding cuts to large, scandal-ridden state hospitals lead to deinstitutionalization which dramatically reduced the number of patients being held at these centers.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the series of Mental Illness in America.

How Common are Mental Health Problems?

Mental health problems in the U.S. are more common than you realize; every year over 42 million people in the U.S. suffer from some kind of mental illness such as bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia. Other types of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders and personality disorders.

Additional mental health problems include stress response syndromes. Stress response syndromes happen when a person develops emotional or behavioral symptoms when faced with a stressful event or situation. Stress events that cause stress responses are a major illness, a natural disaster like a tornado, death of a loved one, divorce or marriage, or a major move overseas. Those who suffer from these dissociative disorders suffer with severe disturbances or changes in memory or identity.

Keep in mind; there are many things which can cause mental illness such as inherited traits. It probably is no surprise that mental illness is more common in those who have blood relatives who have a mental illness, and genes linking certain conditions are being described frequently. Another factor is exposure to environmental stressors before birth such as alcohol or drugs.  In utero exposure or circumstances can bring about epigenetic changes which will shape one’s life for better or for worse.  Imbalances in neurochemistry or brain chemistry are often biochemical reason or a cause of mental illness.

It’s no surprise, I’m sure especially to the younger generation which carries much school debt that stressful life situations include financial problems and can be an additive factor to one suffering from mental illness.  A childhood with abuse or neglect, and a limited social network can set the stage for mental illness.

There are several effective strategies that can be taken that reduce and in some cases reverse mental illness.  One of these pillars is psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy is when mental illness is treated by a trained mental health professional through counseling discussions. Psychotherapy delves into a person’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors to begin heal or improve a person’s well-being. Medication is also prescribed for some mental illness conditions. Case management is another way to treat mental illness and coordinates services for a person with the help of a case manager which can be likened to a “project manager”.  Hospitalization may be necessary for certain patients given circumstances.  Group therapy through support groups, or peer support also may be beneficial in numerous cases.

Other treatments that you can do for yourself, include treating yourself with respect and kindness, not being overly critical of yourself, making time for hobbies or other relaxation strategies.  Even small things like finding time to read a book or do a crossword puzzle. It can not be emphasized enough how important it is to eat nutritious food, exercise, get enough sleep, and to be surrounded by positive or nurturing people; those who are family-oriented and those who support you with your way of life.  Giving back by volunteering to help others, being mindful and learning how to deal with stress through journal writing or simply looking for the humor in life. Taking a moment to be grateful or just going outside for awhile and appreciating what you see; all are activities that can help treat and prevent certain mental health problems.

To conclude, mental health problems in the U.S. are more common than you realize; however, there are many effective treatment strategies which can mitigate mental illness or ideally prevent.