By Elaine Dingle Woods

Mental illness knows no age limit, whether you are rich or poor, race, creed or color. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders.

Huge progress has been made over the last century in helping all of us understand and eliminate the causes of mental illness. Doctors continue to solve some of the mysteries of the brain but many of its functions remain a mystery.

Researchers have determined many mental illnesses are probably the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. These imbalances may be inherited, or may develop because of excessive stress or substance abuse.

It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain is vulnerable to disease. People with mental illnesses often exhibit many types of behaviors such as extreme sadness and irritability, and in more severe cases, they may also suffer from hallucinations and total withdrawal. Instead of receiving compassion and acceptance, people with mental illnesses may experience hostility, discrimination, and stigma.

Why does stigma still exist? The media is responsible for many of the misconceptions that persist about people with mental illnesses. Newspapers often stress a history of mental illness in the backgrounds of people who commit crimes of violence. Television news programs frequently sensationalize crimes where persons with mental illnesses are involved. Comedians make fun of people with mental illnesses, using their disabilities as a source of humor. National advertisers use stigmatizing images as promotional gimmicks to sell products.

Ironically, the media also offers our best hope for wiping out stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion.
Mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thinking, perception and behavior. If these disturbances significantly impair a person’s ability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines, then he or she should immediately seek proper treatment with a mental health professional. With the proper care and treatment, a person can recover and resume normal activities.

Many mental illnesses are believed to have biological causes just like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but some mental disorders are caused by a person’s environment and experiences.

The five major categories of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia, dementias and eating disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. The three main types are: phobias, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder (or manic depression).

Schizophrenia is a serious disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Schizophrenia is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that produce a variety of symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, withdrawal, and incoherent speech and impaired reasoning.
Dementias are a group of disorders that include diseases like Alzheimer’s. Dementias lead to loss of mental functions – memory loss and a decline in intellectual and physical skills.

Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia) are serious, potentially life threatening illnesses.

There are several common misconceptions about mental illness.
Myth: “Young people and children don’t suffer from mental health problems.”

Fact: It is estimated that more than 6 million young people in America may suffer from a mental health disorder that severely disrupts their ability to function at home, in school or in the community.
Myth: “People who need psychiatric care should be locked away in institutions.”

Fact: Today, most people can lead productive lives within their communities thanks to a variety of supports, programs, and/or medications.
Myth: “A person who has had a mental illness can never be normal.”
Fact: People with mental illnesses can recover and resume normal activities. For example, Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes,” who has clinical depression, has received treatment and today leads an enriched and accomplished life.

Myth: “Mentally ill people are dangerous.”
Fact: The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence typically results from the same reasons as with the general public such as feeling threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs.

Myth: “People with mental illnesses can work low-level jobs but aren’t suited for really important or responsible positions.”

Fact: People with mental illnesses, like everyone else, have the potential to work at any level depending on their own abilities, experience and motivation.

You can help combat stigma by sharing your experience with mental illness, helping people with mental illness re-enter society and by responding to false statements about or images of people with mental illness.
Not only is the person with mental illness affected but their friends and family are also. Show respect and understanding to all who have this illness.