Why Americans are Hesitant to Talk Openly About Mental Illness

One in two Americans will experience a mental health diagnosis, but no one wants to talk about it. Tammy Heinz, of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, breaks down the silence from our friends and our policy makers.

By Rhonda FanningJuly 28, 2015 9:01 am

Last week in Lafayette, Louisiana John Houser bought a ticket for “Trainwreck” and opened fire shortly after taking his seat in the theater, killing two women and wounding nine others. Houser had been diagnosed with several mental illnesses, and and sought help at a psychiatric hospital at his family’s request. Days before, a man in Chattanooga gunned down four service members in a Navy and Marine Corps facility. He also had a history of drug abuse.

Published accounts consistently mention an element of someone’s mental health history in many instances of violence in the United States. But when it comes to discussing mental health and preventative care, the silence is almost deafening. Policy makers don’t want to go there, even though some of the most extreme cases of untreated mental illness may result in mass shootings, like Lafayette and Chattanooga.

Tammy Heinz, a program officer with the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, speaks with the Standard about the stigma surrounding mental health in American culture, despite the importance of addressing the subject as part of human health as a whole.

People in general want to separate themselves from those with mental illness, Heinz says. “It’s a scary prospect to think that you are one of ‘those people,’” she says.

By stereotyping people with mental health issues and lumping them into a unified group of “others,” it’s easier to separate “normal” behavior from behavior associated with mental health problems, Heinz says. Many Americans feel the need to keep people diagnosed with mental health issues very separate from themselves, she says, but the trouble is that 50 percent of the population will undergo treatment for a mental health issue in their lifetime.

Proving that mental health issues are prevalent in a large part of the population helps break down the walls that stigmatize such an essential part of human health. Heinz says that no one wants to recognize that mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin. “When we recognize that, we become much more vulnerable to this issue, and people are very uncomfortable with that” she says.

But there is not just stigma in the political arena. Heinz says discussing mental health even in day-to-day life is very rare.

Heinz, a mental health professional, had kept her own diagnosed mental health problems “very private” at first. But, after speaking at a mental health education seminar, someone asked her if she had ever struggled with her own mental health. Even though she felt nervous and vulnerable sharing the information with a large audience, Heinz says she decided to share.

“I can’t lie about this, I have to be honest,” she says. “And I just decided to go ahead and answer it honestly. The response that I got was incredible.”

People came up to her individually after the talk and connected with her because she had shared her own story. Heinz says she realized that she could educate people on mental health in a very different, personal way. Society needs to let go of mental health stigma, she says., but we’re not there yet.

“We have to recognize that just because someone has criminal behavior and they have symptoms of a mental illness, those things don’t necessarily go together,” Heinz says. “We can have symptoms of a mental illness… and recognize that the majority of us that have those are not criminal and do not have criminal behavior. I think that’s a huge distinction for people.”