The stigma of mental health

One of the things that I struggle with a lot is the stigma around mental illness. It is deep-seated, pervasive, and embedded in our society and our language in a thousand different tiny ways. For instance, we say all the time that somethings is “crazy” or “nuts”. Or we call people “spaz”. Or says we’re depressed when we’re really just sort of sad or upset. We say we’re OCD when we’re just organized and like routine. We hyperbolize and mime putting guns to our heads when we’re frustrated and don’t want to deal with a situation.

This has to stop. When we do this, we do so many detrimental things: we reinforce the idea that mental illness is something to be ashamed of. We use people who actually have these conditions as the butt of our jokes and take their dignity and humanity from them. We make them out to be weak, we imply that they should be able to control it at the very least, and we intimate that if they were really a good person they wouldn’t have this condition in the first place. We belittle and diminish the very real struggles they’re dealing with. And most of the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it because it is so deeply engrained in our culture.

My most poignant encounter with this was last year when a student of mine was posting her suicidal ideation on facebook. A few of her friends reported it, and when she came to school the next day, she was taken to the hospital. Later that day a group of colleagues and I were discussing it, and one of them started saying that the student was “acting a fool”, among other comments. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have said anything, and at one point in my life I probably would have agreed. I didn’t know better because no one called me on it; no one called me on it because so few of us understand how harmful language like this is. But that’s not what happened. I asked my coworker to stop talking like that and pointed out that our student wasn’t being foolish, that she was trying to ask for help in what was probably the only way she knew how. And that it wasn’t our place to make judgements about her mental state. It was our job to help her. And speaking like that was not going to help her.

It got really quiet, mostly because very few coworkers of mine have seen me so fired up, and there were about 12 of us in the room. Gradually conversation started again, but I left soon after and cried on the way home as I realized the enormity of what I was up against. I had shared with the coworker who made the comments some of my journey around anxiety, and she knew I was in therapy. It boggled my mind that she would make comments like that after having been so supportive when I shared with her. But I realized that it wasn’t entirely her fault: she grew up in a society that views chronic mental health issues as a character flaw, not a health problem. She, and I, are from a culture that values independence above all else and makes seeking help difficult, and for some, nearly impossible. We’re from a country where shame is automatically attached to any emotion that isn’t happiness or anger, a country where anything but stoicism is considered weakness and weakness is not acceptable.

After that interaction, I felt so helpless, and I felt so sad for my student, and so much shame for how many times in my life I say something is “crazy”. It has been so hard for me to talk about my struggle with anxiety, and most of that difficulty comes from fear of judgement, of being thought that I’m incapable or incompetent, that people will start to define me as my anxiety when I am still all of the other wonderful (and not so wonderful) things I’ve always been. There are still people that I clam up around because of these very fears.

But somewhere along the way, I realized that by not talking about it, by not being forthright, I was tacitly supporting the very stigma that is so hurtful to so many of us. So I started telling more people, and I started writing this blog, and today I found myself sharing with a few of my students that I have panic attacks, which is not something I ever thought I would do. I guess I’m starting to realize something similar to what I realized about relationships a few years ago: if you’re going to judge me or think less of me for something I can’t control, then I don’t want you in my life. I can’t really do anything about this at work, and to be honest, the teacher in me wants to help everyone be the best version of themselves. So I’ve decided to try to pick small moments to educate, to help people refine their language, and to talk them about how their comments or gestures might be perceived by someone who is struggling with mental health, or who knows someone who is.

So the next time you see someone make that gesture with their hand like they’re shooting themselves in the temple or through the mouth, or hear them calling someone who has pissed them off insane or crazy, or you find yourself listening to your coworker say they’re depressed because Cosi was out of their favorite soup by the time they got there, call them out. If you don’t struggle with mental health, by virtue of reading this, you know someone who does, and you have every right to speak up. You have an obligation to speak up. So call that person out, and teach them why their words are inappropriate. Remind them that they don’t know who’s in the room and what they’ve gone through when they make those comments. Remind them that everyone deserves their dignity and their humanity, and that our job is to fight for those that have had it taken from them. And remind them, too, that people who struggle with their mental health are not only the struggle: they are funny, and intelligent, and selfless, and selfish, and angry, and organized, and the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience. And that that is the very reason we need to talk about mental health and shift our language around it. Because ultimately, we are all engaged in managing our mental health, and some people just need to do a little more than others. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us; it means we’re brave and strong and beautiful. And so are you.

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