Mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction continue to have a strong stigma. Mention to an acquaintance or co-worker that you take psychotropic medication, or that you’ve just gone through drug detox, and you’ll likely be judged for it. Our society has a hard time with areas of life it doesn’t understand, and the health of the mind is one of them.
Yet, sadly, the stigma of mental illness, including addiction, can have a significant effect on those who experience one. This is particularly true for those who were raised in a culture that stigmatizes and judges mental illness, such as the United States, and who later discover that they have a mental illness. Frequently, one’s first response is often denial, refusing to believe that they have any thing wrong with them, and as a result, they might minimize their symptoms and avoid any indications that point to having a disorder.
What Is Denial?
Denial is the experience that therapists and psychologists recognize in clients who cannot appreciate or accept in them what is apparent to others. It is a person’s inability to see that there is a mental illness or any psychological concern.
According to Dr. J.W. Hicks, author of 50 Signs of Mental Illness: A User Friendly Guide to Psychiatric Symptoms, there is a one in three chance for someone with schizophrenia to ignore the fact that they have a mental illness. For those who have been diagnosed with depression, general anxiety, or bipolar disorder, there is a one in four chance that they will not believe that they have a psychological illness. And for those who experience psychological symptoms of a disorder but who have not been diagnosed, 90% of them will not think of themselves as psychologically ill.
These figures further point to the avoidance of mental illness in our society. Rather than admit that there might be a psychological problem worth assessing, many individuals will minimize their symptoms or laugh them off as insignificant. Of course, this sort of denial can prevent getting the right diagnosis, being properly assessed, and receiving the right treatment.
Denial Is More Prominent in Some
Denial is prominent in those who experience a psychotic episode as well as those with bipolar disorder and who experience a manic episode. In fact, denial is at the root of having a delusion. The experience of psychosis is a loss of contact with reality and including either hallucinations or delusions. A hallucination is a form of sensory experience that others cannot perceive. In other words, it could be an experience of hearing voices or seeing things that others don’t see. Delusions, on the other hand, are false beliefs that might be shaped by paranoia, such as “The FBI is after my family.” These false beliefs continue to exist despite evidence that disproves the belief. The denial and continued belief in these experiences, despite the fact that others around you cannot experience them as well is a form of denial.
Loss of insight or denial can often be the first sign that an individual is entering into a period of mania. Because mania comes with feelings of optimism, excitement, euphoria, and feeling great, it can easily prevent someone from recognizing that the swing into mania from a depressed mood is the mental illness at work. Instead, it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. Of course, there isn’t, but if it is the result of bipolar disorder, then treatment is necessary.
Coping with Denial
Ways to cope with denial include making a strong network of support. It is common to have insight at certain times, while denial at other times. When a mental illness begins to take over, allow your friends and family members to provide their support. You can even write out advance directives or create a treatment plan with a therapist in advance so that your wishes can be adhered to regardless of your mental state. Sadly, denial often leads to noncompliance with medications or a treatment plan in general.
In these cases, it is important to maintain a strong circle of those who care for your well being. When you are experiencing moments of insight, you might write yourself reminders about why medication is necessary, how it can keep your emotional and psychological state balanced, and why not taking medication can only make your condition worse.
Denial plays a significant, unhealthy role in the psychological well being of many individuals. However, with a circle of friends, family, and professional support, it doesn’t have to.
Hicks, J.W. (2005). 50 signs of mental illness: A user-friendly guide to psychiatric symptoms and what you should know about them. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press