Erasing the Stigma of Mental Health: The World is Crazy, But Hey! We Aren’t

Many of us hear the term “mental illness” and automatically think of crazy people. Perhaps someone with schizophrenia or paranoia would fit the bill. The Joker from “The Dark Knight” is a prime example. If you remember Hamlet from your high school reading, you know what I’m talking about. Unlike these highly dramatized cases, the truth is that we all encounter threats to our mental health as a part of our normal lives. This might be depression after a romantic breakup or a feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out during finals week. The good news is that UCI features a host of resources to help us cope.

This negative stigma toward mental health is a serious problem to our health and well-being as a society. Research has found that college students face more challenges to their mental health than ever before. If we need help, why then, are we so reluctant to seek resources such as free confidential appointments at the Counseling Center? Why wait until our problems accumulate to the point of feeling overwhelmed? Why would we hesitate to use these resources? Perhaps we haven’t been presented with an accurate representation of mental health. After all, we learn about brushing our teeth and washing our hands, but we are rarely taught to actively protect our mental health.

It’s easy to imagine someone saying: “I don’t need to see a counselor. I’m not crazy.” To me this is a reflection of our social norms that have been propagated by inaccurate stereotypes of psychiatrists and “crazy people” in news, movies, TV shows, etc. Coverage of school shootings and suicides (such as the recent unfortunate cluster at Cornell University) also further the polarized representation of mental health and solidifies the negative stigma.

The truth is, you don’t need to be “crazy” to see a counselor. You regularly get checkups at the doctor, dentist or optometrist; why not get your mental health checked too? After all, most of our daily suffering (stress, anxiety and depression) is rooted in our psychological wellness. It’s not just emotional either. There are unarguable biological components to our mental illness (genetics, environmental toxicants, hormones, nutrition, etc). The problem is we’ve never been encouraged to monitor our mental health and recognize the signs and symptoms that would indicate the need for professional help.

Would you be surprised if I told you that an average of ten percent of college students have thoughts of suicide? What about if I told you that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people our age? The statistics show that mental health is a common challenge for most of us.

Stigma is one of the greatest obstacles in the mental health field. It is common for us to seek medical treatment when we have the flu or a sore throat, but when we are depressed or suffer from eating disorders, we still hesitate to see the counselor. This is puzzling given that the UCI Counseling Center is free for all enrolled students.

UCI actually has a myriad of untapped resources for managing mental health. The Health Education Center features a variety of great programs such as stress management classes, programs for eating disorders and body image concerns, and the Active Minds student chapter, which brings awareness to mental health. Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) provides confidential services for sexual violence, intimate partner abuse, relationship health and personal safety. There are also numerous student organizations that provide excellent services and programming to the campus. The Association of University Meditators (AUM), for example, is a club I started in 2005 that continues to provide an opportunity for spiritual development and exploration through Eastern philosophy and meditation. The Anteater Recreation Center (ARC) provides yoga classes, meditation classes and numerous other outlets to help de-stress. These are just a few of the many resources that are here for us.

In thinking about mental health, beyond considering your own, I invite you to open up the conversation to your friends and family. Chances are, they too have been facing challenges that they have been uncomfortable to bring up due to stigma. I invite you to be there for them and just listen. More importantly, understand that there are professional resources available, and like I mentioned about the doctor and dentist, there should be no shame in using them.

Rajiv Ramdeo is a graduate student in Public Health and can be reached at rajiv.ramdeo@uci.edu