For the nearly 44 million Americans who experience mental illness in a given year, 2015 could be regarded as a source of solace. This was the year that celebrities spoke up, research improved and more people started prioritizing their mental well-being.
“We have made great strides in recent years in understanding illnesses that affect the most complex organ in our body: the brain,” Gregory Dalack, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, told The Huffington Post.
“My hope for mental health is that we are able to further erode the stigma associated with mental illness, help individuals who suffer realize that they are not alone and help them understand that treatment works,” he said.
Below are just a few ways 2015 changed the landscape for how we treat mental illness:
Artists taught us what it physically feels like to suffer from mental illness.
This year we’ve seen a slew of talented singers, illustrators, photographers and others create art as a means to convey the realities of mental illness.
One of those artists Katie Crawford, a photographer who has experienced anxiety and depression for most of her life, created a stunning series of self-portraits that captured what her disorders feel like.
“I want people that suffer from [anxiety] to be able to use these images as a reference if they need it,” she told HuffPost earlier this year. “There’s a misconception that anxious people are antisocial, short-fused or overdramatic. But they’re most likely processing everything around them so intensely that they can’t handle a lot of questions, people or heavy information all at once. And I think certain images express that. Anxiety is when you feel everything.”
We learned how to more effectively screen and treat mental illness.
Multiple studies surfaced this year suggesting surprising physical and environmental contributors to mental health. For example, 2015 research found that gut bacteria (the tiny organisms living in the digestive tract) may potentially play a role in mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Other studies are uncovering more effective methods of treatment: A November 2015 study also found that talk therapy may be more successful than light therapy when it comes to treating seasonal affective disorder, a depression-related condition that most often occurs in the winter months.
Advancements in research are obviously meaningful for those who need treatment, but they’re also crucial in the fight against stigma. Just like cancer was taboo to talk about decades ago, mental illness currently faces similar stereotypes, Dalack says. But more studies and public conversation are helping to change that.
“People were ashamed of the diagnosis of cancer, were unwilling to reveal it and unwilling to let individuals outside of their immediate family — and sometimes even within their immediate family — know about it,” he said. “A lot has been done to de-stigmatize cancer. This has helped us to understand cancer as a medical condition, and one that can respond to treatment in many circumstances. It is no different, and should be no different for mental illness.”
Celebrities spoke out for mental health.
Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Carrie Fisher have been outspoken about mental illness for years and continued their legacy of being mental health advocates in 2015.
“Celebrities who suffer with mental illness and are willing to talk about it send an important message,” Dalack explained. “Individuals may be suffering from a mental illness and yet it might not be apparent to you. Having a mental illness does not mean that you cannot function at a high level and be successful.”
Other public figures also began to use their platform to fight stigma this year. “Teen Wolf” star Colton Haynes tweeted messages of support for his fans who may be experiencing anxiety, a condition he revealed he’s dealt with since he was younger. Actress Hayden Panettiere addressed mental illness on-screen and off, with her portrayal of postpartum depression on the show “Nashville” — a condition for which she sought treatment in real life too.
More people are prioritizing their mental health.
We often think of mental illness as something that’s brushed under the rug or minimized. But a recent national survey found that 90 percent of people said they view mental health and physical health equally. Approximately 93 percent of people from the same study also said they’d intervene if they discovered someone close to them was contemplating suicide.
While we still have a long way to go in reducing mental health stigma, this is a promising development.
The Not So Great
People are still equating mental illness with violence.
This year brought an unsettling amount of mass shootings in America. Notable figures didn’t hesitate to blame many of the attacks on mental illness, calling for more mental health reform in our country rather than stricter gun control policies.
One of the most prominent perpetrators was presidential candidate Donald Trump. After the killing of two Virginia journalists on live television, Trump claimed that those who knew the shooter probably thought he should be “institutionalized,” but laws should not make it difficult for “sane people” to have access to guns.
“This isn’t a gun problem, this is a mental problem,” Trump told CNN.
While there certainly needs to be more action toward mental health reform in America, this is mostly unrelated to mass violence. Mental illness is often brought up after an episode of violence, but the two are not easily connected, according to those who study the phenomenon.
“These horrible events make people think that people with mental illness are inherently violent, when in fact they are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of a violent crime,” Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Health Care, told HuffPost.
We still don’t exactly know how to talk about suicide.
Back in May, ESPN published a heartbreaking feature about college athlete Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania freshman who died by suicide on campus. The piece took an extensive look into Holleran’s death, including explicit details and speculations about her death’s circumstances.
While the article was a great spotlight on mental illness awareness, the detailed piece ran afoul of journalistic guidelines for suicide reporting. That’s significant because an analysis of more than 50 global studies found that in-depth reporting on suicide can “increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals,” according to the NIMH. Copycat suicides do happen.
The article and others like it reveal that there’s still a long way to go in determining how to handle the complicated nuances of mental health.
Not enough people are seeking help for their conditions.
According to one survey, 65 percent of people with symptoms of depression don’t seek help to manage their condition, Time reported. Men, in particular, are extremely averse to receiving care for mental health issues.
Stigma is still a huge barrier to treatment. The idea that there’s something “wrong” with your mind is incredibly taboo — and given the rhetoric from prominent people and media mentioned above, it’s not hard to see why.
Here’s to hoping that 2016 continues to breed more understanding, compassion and, most importantly, hope for those dealing with mental illness.