June 21, 2021 Treatment

Overcoming Stigma and Getting Treatment

As a society, we have progressed in our understanding of mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs), but we still have a long way to go. On current job applications, for example, mental health disorders are listed along with other disabilities. However, people still avoid reporting them due to fear of discrimination. In fact, research has shown that people are more likely to under-report mental illness compared to other health conditions.

On one hand, people may not see mental health and substance use issues as “real” illnesses compared to, say, diabetes or cancer. If someone is dealing with depression, it may present to others as laziness. Or, alcohol abuse may present as the person having a lack of willpower.

For a long time, the general consensus around substance abuse and mental illness was that people could change their behavior if they wanted to. People struggling with mental health or SUDs may hear their loved ones say things like “you just need to think more positively,” or “if you didn’t sleep so much you would be more productive,” or “you need to have more self-control.”

Friends and family may have their loved one’s best interests at heart, but a lack of understanding of mental health and substance use concerns is what can inadvertently lead to such unhelpful comments. This coupled with the stigma can lead individuals to avoid seeking treatment.

After all, seeking help from a dentist or medical doctor is considered normal and necessary whereas seeking help from a therapist may come with feelings of embarrassment.

Through scientific research, we now have a better understanding of mental health and SUDs. This knowledge coupled with the type of language we use can help loved ones to seek treatment.

What We Now Know about Mental Illness

There is still a lot that is not understood about mental health disorders; however, current research offers a deeper understanding of the causes and remedies. A combination of various biological and environmental factors can explain the mental health disorders of different individuals.

The brain is an organ in the body, too. Just like someone with diabetes has a pancreas that cannot make enough insulin, someone with a mental health disorder may have some sort of abnormal physiology of the brain.

For instance, glial cells (a type of brain cell) have been shown to play a role in depression and anxiety, and adversity in early life has been shown to impact those cells too. The good news is that the glial cells are responsive to different types of treatment.

Treatments such as individual and group therapy, medication, or a combination of the two help those struggling with these disorders to manage them and live satisfying lives.

Moreover, just as there can be a family history of diabetes, mental health issues are often in family histories as well. A person with diabetes may have a much greater quality of life by taking insulin rather than only managing their diet. Similarly, someone who takes an antidepressant isn’t someone who “needs pills,” but, rather, the medication helps them to function more easily.

What We Now Know about Substance Abuse

The use of substances often begins as a way to cope with and escape stress or emotional pain. In fact, a significant number of people with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) are also diagnosed with bipolar disorders, depressive disorders, and/or anxiety disorders.

Like mental health disorders, genetic and environmental factors play a part in the development of SUDs. For example, people with an AUD are likely to also have a family history of substance abuse and a history of childhood physical abuse.

There seems to be more of a stigma toward the use of illicit (illegal) drugs versus alcohol, even though alcohol is also a drug that can cause significant damage to one’s health and life. For instance, whether or not marijuana should be legalized is a common debate.

Perhaps because it is legal, alcohol use is more accepted, while the use of illicit substances is less acceptable—sometimes to the point of it being considered immoral. Because of this stigma, it might be harder for someone to feel comfortable seeking help with their use of illicit drugs.

Additionally, SUDs are often perceived as people having a lack of willpower. However, we now know that there is a biological component to addiction as well. For example, with heavy and prolonged alcohol use, the part of the brain that actually increases alcohol-seeking behavior is affected, further perpetuating the alcohol abuse.

However, yes, there is more good news. SUDs, like mental health disorders, can be successfully treated with therapy and/or medication depending on the stage of the disorder.

Celebrities Who Have Overcome Mental Health or Substance Use Disorders

Media coverage of mental illness in the past two decades has mostly been news stories of violence perpetrated by people who happen to have a mental health disorder or SUD. This exacerbates the stigma because the stories covered are highly disproportionate compared to the actual, much smaller, rates of violence committed by those with those conditions.

There are very few positive news stories about the successful treatment of substance use or mental health disorders. However, many celebrities have opened up about their substance use or mental illness, increasing and normalizing the discourse on this important topic. Just a few of these celebrities are:

  • Drew Barrymore: A star of the movie ET, has shared her experience with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine and that she went into rehab at just 13 years old. Over the years she has grown to be a successful actor and producer.
  • Sir Elton John: He sought out treatment in 1990 for his alcohol and cocaine use after becoming one of the largest global music and cultural icons.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis: She reported that she became addicted to prescription painkillers after surgery and has successfully recovered due to entering a rehab program.
  • Demi Lovato: The popular singer shared that as her singing career took off, so did her drug and alcohol abuse. She is involved with treatment on an ongoing basis. She has also been open about her bipolar and eating disorders.

How to Help Loved One Get into a Treatment Program

If you have a loved one experiencing mental illness or SUD, you have several options to help:

  • Tell them you love them, care about them, and want them to get better. Individuals with strong social support recover more successfully.
  • Use person-centered, rather than stigmatizing, language. For example, “she struggles with an alcohol use disorder” versus “she is an addict,” or “she has schizoaffective disorder” versus “she is crazy” or “she is a schizophrenic.”
  • Make it normal to speak about mental health and substance abuse issues by regularly incorporating them in conversation, just as you might with fibromyalgia or migraine headaches.
  • Join a support group for friends and family of those struggling with mental illness or SUDs. It is important for you to get help with coping as well as learning more about your loved one’s struggles.

Thinking About Seeking Help and Don’t Know Where to Start?

If you are thinking about seeking help for mental illness or a SUD, here are some cations to take:

  • Know that you are not alone and that many people go through recovery and live meaningful and satisfying lives.
  • Talk with someone you trust—emotional support from a friend or family member makes a significant positive difference in the treatment process.
  • Know that discussing your substance use concern with a medical or mental health professional is confidential; you cannot be reported to law enforcement even for the use of illicit drugs.
  • Take things one step at a time, as the thought of starting a recovery program can be overwhelming. This can also help you prepare for the process.