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Mental Illness and Society

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Mental illnesses have long had a place among the most controversial topics in society, from causations to treatments to public policy and perceptions. Half of adults have experienced a mental illness at some point during their lives, and the most common form of mental illness-“depression-“is even the leading cause of disability in the United States. From popular culture to face-eating cannibalism to mass shootings, mental illness permeates mass media like no other time in history.

From 5000 B.C., the time of the first known treatment of mental illness, people have been searching for reasons to explain why mental illnesses exist. In early societies, it was speculated that demonic possession was the explanation for mental illnesses, and many cultures still believe that mental illness reflects a wrongdoing on the part of the family or individual.

Currently, medical and psychological experts believe that mental illnesses are caused by interactions of hereditary and environmental factors, malfunctioning chemical messengers, predisposition, extra stress at home or in social situations, and biological components. Treatments of mental illnesses have been just as widely varied across history as the reasoning behind these afflictions.

From portrayals in shows like American Horror Story and movies like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, many people are familiar with certain forms of treatments that have previously been used for mental illness. The mentally ill used to be institutionalized or locked away in their families’ homes to be kept out of sight and not ’embarrass’ their families. In these institutions, many mentally ill people were subjected to inadequately performed lobotomies, which often rendered them zombies. Others were prescribed large doses of high-powered medications.

As a result of the deinstitutionalization movement, which started in 1955, many mentally ill people were moved out of asylums and could no longer be committed against their wills unless they presented a danger to themselves or others. Treatment for mental illnesses today falls under the categories of psychotherapy, medication, and community support groups, or any combination of the three. Psychotherapy can include methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and family therapy. Many community support groups include twelve step programs such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or DA (Depression Anonymous). Medications include antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics, and even stimulants.

Films and television programs depicting treatment of mental illness not only show the methods that were once used to treat mental illness, they very often bring up some of the very current stigmas that often come along. With 60 percent of prime time characters who have mental illnesses portrayed as involved with criminal activity, as well as the recent uproar over the connections between violence and mental illness, there have been general conclusions drawn that those who suffer from mental illnesses are more likely to commit crimes. This assessment isn’t correct; in fact, the mentally ill are actually more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.

Although there has been an increase in the mentally ill inmate population, it is largely because there is not widely accessible mental healthcare for many of those who suffer from severe mental illnesses and are homeless, poor, or struggling with substance abuse. Only about 20 percent of those struggling with mental illness ever receive professional help, and it is no doubt in part because of the way that many of the afflicted are still viewed in society at large.

Mental illness is also highly connected with substance abuse. Although there is no clear cut number that defines the relationship between the two, there is a definite correlation. Many experts define the nature of this relationship as “self-medication,” a means to relieve the symptoms of a particular disorder, counteract the side effects of medication, or increase the effect of a prescribed medication. Regardless, substance abuse and mental illness tend to go hand in hand.

Our society has been shaped and molded by the many facets of mental illness for decades. Humane and effective treatments are available for many mental illnesses, as well as support groups found in communities everywhere. Whether it’s through medication, group therapy, individual therapy, or an alternative form of treatment, mental illnesses are no longer something to be hidden away in a basement or asylum. This speaks to the progress made on a very important front in our global culture.

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