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Mental Health and Stigma at Duke

Every once in a while, you have an experience that reminds you of the “out of sight, out of mind” issues that affect millions of people every day. These issues aren’t as far away as they seem; in fact they’re quite visible in day-to-day encounters. I had one of these experiences today when I visited Central Regional Hospital for the first time, one of three North Carolina state-run psychiatric hospitals, and home to about 400 patients. A mere 16 miles away from East Campus, I stepped into a world outside of the hustle of Duke into the enormous block of clean-cut, white buildings that make up Central Regional Hospital.

With a group of eight other Duke students, I toured the facilities and spent some time with the patients as they enjoyed a few hours of scheduled free time. These patients are receiving treatment for mental disorders such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder. Central Regional Hospital attends to patients who pose a danger to themselves or others, and “focus[es] on safety while promoting wellness and offering support to patients and their families consistent with the principles of recovery and trauma informed care,” according to their website.

Although the tide is turning, one cannot deny the fact that there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. I was a little nervous walking into the hospital, not for my safety, but because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to interact with the patients normally. It is shocking to think about the way our society reacts to psychiatric disorders when one considers the fact that they are so common among the U.S. population. According to a survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2014, 43.6 million adults in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness. That is 14 percent of the population, and yet we still tread on eggshells when we speak about struggling with things like depression, or seeing a therapist.  

And therein lies the problem with the stigma. It dehumanizes those who are dealing with very real, human issues. The violence we associate with mental health issues, propagated by movies and the media, alienates people who can lead lives just as normal as our own. But the biggest problem with this stigma is that it stops us from having open conversation about struggling with mental health. The lack of conversation prevents those who seriously need help from getting it and stops hospitals like CRH from getting the funding they need to treat a larger number of patients. Although they are always at full capacity, there are 100 people waiting to be admitted to the hospital, according to an employee. 100 people. All waiting for a spot in one hospital that serves 25 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, in one state out of 50.

Here at Duke where we are constantly enveloped in the stress of our everyday lives, it’s easy to forget the 400 patients that reside in Butner, North Carolina. And while we can’t all make the time volunteer, we can participate in a conversation about mental health that will destigmatize the topic and get help for those in need.

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