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If someone battling with or those having survived from cancer are heroes (which they are) – why shouldn’t those battling, or those having recovered from a mental illness be considered heroes too?

That’s a question that I contemplated during a presentation by Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who recently came to Walden to discuss the evolving stigma of mental illness. He brought new light to the major (and I mean MAJOR) disparity between the portrayal of mental illnesses verse other (more externally identified) medical conditions.

Case in point: I’ve been honored to run four Boston Marathons for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, challenging myself through 26.2 miles while having the amazing opportunity to raise thousands of dollars for cancer research. Through that experience, I witnessed the very unforgiving consequences of cancer – harrowing stories of sick children and lives lost met with incredible stories of survival and hope.

The culture I embraced viewed patients, survivors and those who passed on as heroic, inspirational and (thankfully in many cases) triumphant. I completely agree that the courage of those touched by cancer makes them nothing short of those words. I love seeing bake sales or GoFundMe pages to help foot medical bills or when celebrations are thrown commemorating the end of someone’s chemotherapy treatment.

Now let’s talk about mental illness – for instance those battling schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and/oreating disorders. Are we viewing them as inspiring heroes?

Not really.

While the specific diagnoses, hurdles and treatments vary, mental illnesses can also be life threatening (for instance, around 4 percent of anorexia patients will die). Yet the patients who are putting up the fights of their lives in these cases aren’t viewed in the heroic spotlight; rather, they are all too often labeled as “crazy,” “attention seekers” or “too lazy to commit to recovery.” All of these of course are unfair stereotypes that leave many sinking deeper into the debilitating cycle of isolation, shame and depression.

Like cancer patients, those with mental illnesses like eating disorders didn’t CHOOSE to be sick. No one wants a mental illness. So why cast a highly unfavorable net around them?

The more we perpetuate the stigma of mental health, the more people will be driven back into a dark and lonely world, instead of gaining the courage they deserve to seek treatment, get better and do all they can to be recognized as the hero that they are.

Your best friend, sibling, parent, neighbor or colleague could be struggling with these very issues. So I urge you to be more tolerant, more empathic the next time someone speaks to you about their internal struggle. You may not even realize how much courage it took for them to seek you out for assistance. Listen to this person without judgment and with sensitivity. Don’t be too quick to advise. Sometimes all people need is a helpful hand and a guiding light. Encourage them to seek help. And when they do, congratulate them and validate that what they did was SO brave.

You don’t have to throw parties or fundraisers. Sometimes all people want to know is that their struggle hasn’t gone unnoticed – that you think they are courageous, inspiring and yes, heroic.

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michael-mcdonough-headshotMichael McDonough is the Director of Communications at Walden Behavioral Care. Prior to joining Walden in February of 2016, he was the Marketing Communications Manager for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, elevating the organization’s brand awareness and increasing membership acquisition through digital and traditional marketing strategies. He also carries nearly ten years of public relations experience working with dozens of corporate and non-profit organizations.

Michael is a graduate of Syracuse University, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in both Broadcast Journalism and Psychology. He is an avid runner, having completed five marathons (including four Boston Marathons).

*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment. Comments are welcome, but respect for the opinions of others is encouraged.