Mental Illness: Breaking Down the Stigma

Last week, student Alex “Goldie” Golden and her team of actors presented Next to Normal down in the Tustin Theatre. A contemporary musical, Next to Normal discussed issues that plague households across the nation, particularly those related to mental health. The story revolves around Diana Goodman, a woman who struggles with bipolar disorder and the ways in which the illness affects her relationship with her husband and daughter.

As the show progresses, we watch Diana’s bipolar disorder bleed into every facet of her life, and her husband and daughter are forced to grapple with its effects. The show also explores a wide range of related issues, from suicide to drug abuse in the context of typical suburban life.

Next to Normal reveals the ways in which mental illness manifests itself in the ordinary, making it a topic that everyone can relate to. However, mental illness is often stigmatized in both the media and everyday conversation. It can be incredibly isolating; people with illnesses like bipolar disorder are too often ostracized and deemed social pariahs. We see news sources sensationalize violent acts by the severely mentally ill, or TV shows that paint incredibly unflattering portraits of those with mental health conditions.

All of these influences have built a barrier that prevents the unaffected from truly understanding what mental illness is. The fear of the unknown drives this type of negative stereotyping; thus, comprehension is key to breaking down these barriers.

Mental illnesses aren’t as easy to identify, or define, as other health complications are. There’s nothing physical you can point to, making it easier for people to dismiss mental illnesses as illegitimate or unworthy of medical care. However, mental illnesses do merit medical attention, and they’re more prevalent than more people care to believe. Every year, about 18.2% of the total U.S. adult population suffers from some sort of mental illness, be it depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

Additionally, our use of mental illnesses in everyday conversation shapes the overarching conversation surrounding the issue. Criticizing someone for being overly “OCD” or “bipolar” delegitimizes the illness and reduces it to a mere insult. It’s incredibly important to recognize the moments when we slip and do make mistakes like these in day-to-day conversation, and to realize the power we wield – either good or bad – when discussing mental health.

The prevalence of mental illness in both our own lives and those if the people around us make it an issue that demands our time and attention. An open-minded attitude and a willingness to learn are both paramount to navigating a subject that’s as complicated and fragile as our psychological well-being.