RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Roughly one in four adults suffers from some form of mental illness in a year, writes former first lady and mental health advocate Rosalynn Carter in her new book Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis (Rodale, 2010). Yet public attitudes that label the mentally ill as weak-willed, incompetent, and unreliable can drive them to forgo treatments for curable conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, or to live in silence about a condition. Rosalynn Carter recently sat down with Rodale.com to discuss her new book, and how we all can combat the stigmatization of mental illnesses.
You title the book Within Our Reach. What do you think is the primary obstacle to ending the mental health crisis?
Stigma is the main reason we haven't reached more people than we have. It hurts people so badly. For one, it curtails funding for programs. There is a very strong mental health advocacy community that has worked and worked for years to impress upon people the importance in helping people with mental illnesses. We know what to do. There's been so much learned about the brain in the last decade or so, and we're continuously learning new things—new medications and new forms of therapy. But research can't continue without adequate funding. And stigma leads to discrimination, which is devastating.
Overcoming the stigma of mental illness is a major theme of your book. What perpetuates this stigma and how can we stop it?
I think the main reason it continues is fear, and the media perpetuate it. A majority of fiction on TV and stories in newspapers and so forth portray people with mental illness in such a negative way. I have a program at The Carter Center [a nonprofit institute founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to alleviate suffering in communities around the world] that sponsors fellowships for journalists, in which we bring journalists in and teach them how to cover stories about people with mental illnesses. Because, we can work and work and work on stigma and then something like Virginia Tech [the 2007 shooting in which a mentally ill student killed 32 students before killing himself] occurs, and it undoes everything we've tried to do.
But almost without exception, as with the Virginia Tech case, it was the mental health system that failed the young man. People with mental illnesses are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators. They're four times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, because they're vulnerable. It's this combination of lack of care and this image people get from the media that perpetuates the stigmas surrounding mental illness.
Particularly in the U.S., we seem to idolize this myth of the rugged individualist who can take care of problems alone and doesn't need to seek help for mental problems, which can often be viewed as a sign of weakness. Do you think that adds to the stigmatization of the mentally ill?
I think that continues it. The fact that they're pictured that way makes them very vulnerable. That's what's so distressing to me. Stigma is the greatest barrier to seeking care—people don't go for help because they don't want to be stigmatized. We're having the same problem with returning veterans. They don't want to be labeled as mentally ill. But what people don't realize is that with treatment, people living with mental illness today can recover and can live full and productive lives in their communities.