Vail Dear Doc column: Getting past the stigma of mental illness |

Vail Dear Doc column: Getting past the stigma of mental illness

Dr. Drew Werner
VAIL CO, Colorado

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month but did you know the first week of October was “National Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW)? It was. In fact the U.S. Congress established MIAW in 1990.

Some things are easy to remember, share and talk about. Others are not. Mental illness is one of the latter.

Dear Doc,

Could you talk to people about mental illness, and especially not to be afraid of it? It seems so easy for people to rally around someone with cancer, heart disease or a traumatic physical injury, but so hard when someone is diagnosed with mental illness.

– Grateful in Eagle

Dear Grateful,

That is a great question. Mental illness affects tens of millions of Americans every year according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Some experts in Family Medicine estimate that mental illness is a component of nearly 50 percent of visits to family physicians. Mental illness takes on many forms, from mild anxiety and depression to what is considered severe mental illness. While nearly half of us will seek therapy for some form of stress or depression at some time in our lives, severe forms of mental illness will affect 5.8 percent of the population every year.

“Severe Mental Illness” is defined by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health as:

• A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders).

• Diagnosable currently or within the past year.

• Of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

• Resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

Serious mental illness also takes a huge toll on the U.S. economy. Including disability, health care expenditure and loss of earnings the cost is over $300,000,000,000 per year. Yes, you read that right, $3 billion dollars a year. Equally remarkable is how well mental illness can be treated. Relying on less than 8 percent of treatment in an inpatient setting, most mental illness can be treated with medications and outpatient therapy. In fact, the success of treatment of mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is better than that of our nation’s No. 1 killer: heart disease.

Despite that fact, mental health illness is something we fear accepting in others or recognizing in ourselves. It is associated with a pronounced social stigma and so we avoid it rather than openly address it. The resulting tragedy is that mental illness goes unrecognized and shunned when in fact there is great potential to successfully treat it.

So, the next time you hear of someone with a mental health illness, consider treating them like a person with any other medical disease. Congratulate them on the treatment they bravely receive, encourage them to stay the course, or get help if they need it. In the midst of their worst times, a friendly hello or the offer to bring by a hot meal may make all the difference in the world.

Most importantly, the next time you say “How are you?” stop and listen for an honest answer.

Dr. Drew Werner is a medical staff leader at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, a family physician at TotalHealth Care and the Eagle County health officer. He lives in Eagle with his family. Email comments about this column to

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