What Kills: Mental Health and the Stigmas Within It
When it comes to mental health, ignorance toward the thing dangerously enables the thing itself.
A couple weeks ago, I posted on social media certain injustices I felt were occurring due to a mental health stigma still inherited by this university today. Here it is:
“A mental health stigma looks a lot like emailing your professor telling them that you cannot attend class due to the fact you had a difficult session with your therapist earlier that day, and having that professor give a lecture the following class on how there will be ‘no hand-holding in the real world. So show up when you can.’”
Mental health stigma looks a lot like having a panic attack before another class and being too afraid to tell anyone due to fear of not having them understand. Mental health stigma looks a lot like the threat of getting your grade dropped because of the subsequent absence. Mental health stigma looks a lot like the destructive American work ethic. It looks like ignorant 10-minute rants on our “trigger warning generation.”
What ended up happening after this post was intriguing: text messages from classmates I only sometimes talked to; emails from friends and old co-workers expressing similar rages, experiences and worries; hugs from familiar faces on campus. Their solidarity was in the shadows, and it took my angry, tired experience to make them emerge.
I’m telling you now that it should not be this way. Someone should not have to go through the fire to inspire people to understand what it’s like to get burned. While our campus is on the verge of building incredible infrastructure to address the enhanced need for mental health services at the higher levels of academia, the de-stigmatizing process must also begin at the ground level: person-to-person.
At worst, the dismissal of mental health burdens is killing us. The Los Angeles Times last week reported that more than 1/3 of people shot by the Los Angeles police last year had documented signs of mental illness, nearly triple the number from the year before, according to a review published by LAPD officials.
The stigma makes rude caricatures of those combatting mental health issues: showing them as weak, hyper-sensitive, “obsessive,” “hysterical,” “crazy.” At worst — this stigma kills those who continue to survive the heaviest repercussions of mental illnesses day by day, indirectly or directly.
Indirectly, the stigma becomes internalized — shaped cruelly into a form of shame, embarrassment and isolation. It’s the ‘sorry-I’m-so-emotional’ and the ‘they-will-never-understand’ and, perhaps worst of all, it’s the ‘I-am-a-burden-to-others’ and the ‘I-will-never-feel-normal-again’.
This internal dialogue prevents people at all levels of mental health need from seeking the help they deserve. Why do we know the symptoms of the flu and other physical ailments, but not the symptoms of an anxiety attack or a depressive episode?
Directly, mental health resources may be too expensive, too crowded, too far away, not enough. Stigma is the ether in and of these things — percolating our policy-making, allocation of finances and capabilities of obtaining the intellectual and cultural capital necessary to help oneself and others.
Something that isn’t common knowledge is how mental health issues function at its intersections with poverty, homelessness, women and people of color. While studies have existed for decades on this topic, it’s also not something an everyday person is conscious of or considers an active influence on mental health stigma.
According to research done by Dr. Ellen L Bassuk in the early 2000s, rates of mental illness among people who are homeless in the United States are twice the rate of that found in the general population. Another study by her and her academic colleagues in 2004 reveals that 47% of homeless women in particular meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder — twice the rate of women in general.
And yet, the public’s most common reaction to a homeless person having an obvious mental health crisis in the streets it to resort to condemnation — calling the police, where they are more likely to be arrested, than taken to services with professionals who know how to tend to mental health-specific crises. Like the old saying goes, you cannot fix everything with a hammer. While it’s common knowledge to know 911, it isn’t common knowledge to know how to respond when someone needs help, not handcuffs.
An article by Julie Holland in the New York Times titled “Medicating Women’s Feelings,” addresses the intersection of women and emotionality — and the fact that women in the United States are statistically more medicated for their feelings than men. She also addresses the fact that women are usually discouraged from bearing any sense of genuine emotion — good or bad — simply to make others (namely, men) more comfortable, likely a factor of mental health need that intersects with sexism:
“Obviously, there are situations where psychiatric medications are called for. The problem is too many genuinely ill people remain untreated, mostly because of socioeconomic factors. People who don’t really need these drugs are trying to medicate a normal reaction to an unnatural set of stressors…This emotional blunting encourages women to take on behaviors that are typically approved by men.”
A few things need to happen before we are capable of unlearning stigma: we need to be okay with what and how we feel, however long we feel it. We need to stop criminalizing and devaluing the triumphs of those who negotiate with their mental health on a daily basis — anything at all, from getting out of bed in the morning, to getting your work done at the end of the day, to making it through your three midterms and 8-page essay. We need to stop thinking that ripping ourselves apart or dimming our light to make others more comfortable, is progress.
Kelly Kimball is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.