The Difference Between Physical and Mental Illness? Discrimination.

Frustrated woman worried about problem sitting on sofa with laptop
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Patricia A. Rehmer
President, Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network

When someone is hospitalized with a physical illness like cancer or heart disease, it’s common for friends and neighbors to bring food to that family: casseroles, breads, cookies and more.

On the other hand, when an individual is diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder — either mental illness or substance abuse – the scenario is much different. Not only do we not deliver any food or support, but we rarely talk about it and it’s not unusual to avoid the impacted family or individual.

Unfortunately, this type of stigma is nothing compared to the discrimination that people with behavioral health conditions face.

I’ve seen discrimination time and time again during my 30-plus years in behavioral health, first as a nurse and now as an executive. It results in:

  • Unemployment
  • Lack of housing
  • Inadequate access to treatment
  • Spotty insurance coverage
  • Limited educational opportunities
  • NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard sentiments)
  • Public ridicule.

All of this despite the fact that at least one in four adults in the United States experiences a mental health disorder at some time in their lives, and the numbers of children and young adults suffering from depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts is increasing at an alarming rate.

Simply put, we have not made the same strides in behavioral health as we have with physical illnesses.

Now is the time to talk about it — May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to begin the conversation and reverse these disturbing trends.

At Hartford HealthCare, we are doing our best to have mental illness and substance abuse treated like any other illness.

We have brought primary care and behavioral health together in some of our health centers so that people can more easily and discreetly access the care they need. This has resulted in more appointments kept, improved quality of life and a better understanding of what our patients need.

We also offer Mental Health First Aid Training to our staff and the public, because lack of understanding about those suffering from behavioral health issues fuels discrimination. Participants learn about risk factors and warning signs for mental health problems, as well as how to help an individual in crisis connect with the appropriate professional care.

Finally, let’s call it what it is.  Stop using the word “stigma,” which has more to do with how individuals feel about themselves, and start using the word “discrimination,” which is how people with behavioral health disorders are often treated by others.

And speaking of how we treat others, the next time someone you know is impacted by a mental health or substance abuse issue, don’t forget that casserole.

To learn more about Mental Health First Aid Training or to sign up, click here.




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