Beating the stigma: Mental health, the current narrative

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photo source: Northwestern Let’s Talk

Since 1949, May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. But, more often than not, mental health is something discussed in hushed tones and with shame and disbelief.

This willingness to deny the existence of mental health — as well as the silence surrounding it — is known as the mental health stigma. As a result of the stigma, hundreds of thousands of Americans go undiagnosed, and the numbers are even higher in Eastern countries where mental illness is looked down on even more.

You might ask how we can break the stigma, but there is no simple, straightforward answer. To start, we can speak out about our experiences, how the stigma has affected our lives, and what our fears are for the future because of our disorders. I use plural pronouns because I am one of the 57.4 million people living with mental illness in the United States. That number may seem high, but the real kicker is this: two thirds of those suffering from mental illness go untreated. Roughly? That’s 38.3 million people.

In order to collect data about what people have gone through because of their mental illnesses, I conducted an anonymous survey of 100 people, and many shared their stories, thanking the Chronicle for reaching out and trying to break the stigma one step at a time. But, even someone who voluntarily took my survey denied that the stigma existed, something that more than 90 other participants with varying mental disorders would disagree with.

When asked about the mental health stigma, one participant explained that it has prevented them from approaching friends or family about it out of fear of being judged or disowned, and that “it initially prevented me from getting any kind of help because then I’d have to own up to being who I really am.” The stigma makes it  hard for many people to accept that they are affected by mental illness. It took me several years to even begin to connect my general apathy, internal sadness, and lack of excitement and motivation with depression. I just thought that I was a sad, moody teen and, frankly, so did my parents.

Parents are more often than not a reason that younger people are unable to receive the help they need. One participant, who didn’t speak openly to others about her illness but instead displayed symptoms of depression, said that she has to “hide medication from Dad because he refuses to believe [that] medication is effective” in treating mental illness, and was even called a “hypochondriac” by friends and family. Another participant confessed that her mother was “hesitant to get me help for a long time because she thought I could just snap out of it.”

But, snapping out of something often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain is impossible. Chemistry isn’t affected by someone telling you to get up, find a new hobby, rediscover yourself and snap out of your depression. For these reasons, a participant stated that the stigma has “prevented them from receiving help and support because nobody really understands [mental illness and eating disorders] unless they are going through them.” Many went into detail about how their family members didn’t believe in mental illness, despite the symptoms that they displayed.

Others cited their culture and heritage as reasons why the stigma is so strong against them. “Because of my culture, mental illness is almost nonexistent,” described a student that claimed an Asian heritage.

“Mostly I have had issues with my parents refusing to believe me . . . because I come from an Asian family where, culturally, it is seen as shameful to deal with mental health problems,” another participant described. A student of color said that their mom, who is a woman of color, viewed their anxiety as an excuse and a weakness.

But the stigma is not always family-oriented or externally focused. In fact, one participant openly admitted that the stigma was more internal than external, while another participant agreed and stated that “it isn’t that my family ignores my symptoms. I do.” One student revealed that before he reached out to get help, he thought that his mental health issues were just a part of who he was, and that it wasn’t something that he could change.

When it comes to treatment, many of the methods are also stigmatized. Countless people refuse to be medicated because they don’t want their personalities to be altered, or because they are afraid of the side effects. Collectively, the 100 participants have used over twenty different medications, ranging from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), other antidepressants, and antipsychotics to homeopathic and natural treatments like lithium and St. John’s wort. “I’ve had a lot of medications that have made me worse but have finally found a combination that works for me after a lot of trial and error,” stated one participant, while another admitted that it took half a year to figure out the correct dose.  For some, however, the process may take years, but a participant had advice for those seeking treatment via medication: “I caution others to not put too much weight into [specific] anecdotes. Every person’s body is unique, and finding the right drug is a trial-and-error process that can take a very long time.”

Those who wish to not be medicated — or need an extra boost — may get help from therapists, counselors, psychiatrists or even their friends. “I’ve seen a therapist for the past three years, which has been really good for me,” explained one participant. “It was very difficult to open up at first, but once we built a relationship, she became someone I deeply trust and respect.” Just like with medication, not every trained professional in the field of mental health is the right fit. A student revealed in the survey that their psychiatrist told them “I don’t think you’re really bipolar. Most teens have mood swings, y’know?” This is a frank dismissal of a serious problem, and something that discourages many from pursuing treatment. Other participants spoke of their experiences, which varied from meeting with a long string of psychiatric professionals to finding a perfect fit from day one. Many shared both heartwarming and horrific stories detailing their past relationships with medical professionals. Several spoke of how their friends helped them when the stigma did not stand in the way between them. “What helped most,” according to one participant, “was talking to my friends about situations that made me anxious. When they were aware of it and accepting and willing to help, that’s what helped ease [my] anxiety.” But the most important step? Being ready to reach out for help.

No matter how many people may continue to ignore the growing dialogue about mental health awareness, there will always be those willing to stand up and fight against the stigma. Like one participant summed up their survey, “Depression doesn’t just go away. It’s a battle every single day to feel emotions and live my life. Even five years on from my suicide attempt, there are still bad days and thoughts I have to confront, and that terrifies me. Suicide isn’t cowardly, depression isn’t cowardly, and the people who say that victims who succumbed to the fight within themselves have no idea the kind of daily pain and long lasting damage fighting your own psyche can bring about.”

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