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Mental Health

The Mental Illness Stigma is Real. Here’s How to Move Past it

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

In today’s society, chances are you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness. In fact, as of 2019 one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness, and one in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness. To some of us, perhaps this isn’t a shocking statistic. We have seen some of the darkest hours fall upon us; through the death and destruction of millions of individuals, jobs and entire countries swallowed by the ever-so-slowly tapering COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, we faced months of on-again-off-again isolation periods, and many suspect the increased use of social media during those times was just one of the culprits for causing the rise in mental illness cases. But why is it still taboo to talk about it? Why is it still an ordeal to receive help without the judgment of others? The stigmas behind mental illness are still a present-day problem. And as mental illness cases rise in the U.S., it’s important to chip away at ending those stigmas and helping yourself, and maybe even someone else, before bad becomes worse. 

To understand why talks of mental illness are kept hush-hush, we have to understand the different stigmas that surround it. It is a common assumption that prejudices and stereotypes about mental illness are only rooted within the public. You know the ones, thinking an individual is dangerous or unpredictable, or that they are to blame for their disorder. This feeds into public discrimination against those suffering, leading to fewer job opportunities, healthcare opportunities and even problems with renting or owning a home. Common as those stereotypes may be, they are not the only stigmas that can surround a person and their illness. 

Oftentimes an individual also finds themselves at the foot of their own judgment. This is known as “self-stigma;” believing that they themselves are to blame for what they are suffering from, or that they are dangerous and unpredictable. Self-stigma and public stigma often go hand in hand. This double whammy of a stigma cocktail can often worsen a person’s situation, making it incredibly hard for them to overcome their illness. Even more so, self-stigma can lead to discrimination of oneself, leading to the “why even bother?” mindset, worsening their self-esteem and perpetuating the cycle of feeling worthless. 

But stigma reaches even further into the outside world surrounding the lives of those working through their disorders. “Institutional stigma” presents the problem that stereotypes and prejudices are often woven into laws and other institutions, which creates discrimination by the loss of opportunity for those suffering. Think of it as systematically weeding out those who are mentally ill; unintentionally or intentionally restricting those individuals’ opportunities. Lack of funding for programs and mental illness health care only sustain this type of stigma. 

Clearly, people with mental illness have some heavy obstacles to push through. Stereotypes and discrimination have only shown that society is unaccepting of those who suffer in silence. But learning and educating is a path to creating normalcy surrounding the topic; as well as reaching out and finding ways to take care of yourself, whether professional or personal. Granted it may be easier said than done, but the only path from the bottom (which is where many of us start) is up. 

There’s a word that looms above many heads in the world of mental illness. It carries weight with it and can stay tethered to a person for the rest of their life: diagnosis. *Cue the gasps.* As much as it sounds like a word meant for terminal illnesses, it does hold a little bit of a load with psychological disorders. What do you do when you feel depressed and think you need professional help? You see a psychiatrist. What do they give you, besides mind-altering drugs? A diagnosis. From personal experience, it’s a long, and I mean long, couple hours of talking and answering questions about how you’re feeling before they reach a conclusion. If you have ever taken a psychology class in high school or college, then perhaps you’ve heard the name “DSM-5” tossed around. This is the framework that psychiatrists work from to figure out what’s going on in that head of yours. They ask some questions, take some notes, and boom: diagnosis. 

When the words of the diagnosis hit you, it can feel like you’ve had a pile of bricks stacked on top of you. Believe me, I’ve been there. And this is what some have figured they need to avoid, believing it’s better to deal with it alone than receive any help. The headstrong people of the world, like myself, can sometimes find themselves wrestling with the idea of reaching out for help and shying away from it out of determination to solve the problem on their own. However strong you are though, it can always come to a breaking point. 

I believe that society has pushed for people to reject the idea of “being soft.” As mentioned before, stigmas are everywhere in all aspects of life. So what’s the point then? So glad you asked. There’s a point to living a healthy and happy life, and I do believe that is self-explanatory. There is a point to saving yourself at your lowest, and pulling yourself out of the trench you’ve fallen into. If that isn’t an example of being strong, then I don’t know what is. Whoever said reaching out for help when you need it most, in a world where everyone tells you not to, is “soft,” I’d like to have a chat, please. 

Such stigmas and discrimination can only create a worse situation that needs to be professionally dealt with. An endless cycle of feeling worthless, low, hopeless and isolated can take its toll to the point where an individual is hesitant to reach out for help.

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that talking to someone who suffers from a mental illness can in turn help eradicate the stigma behind it. Relating to someone who fearlessly shares what they’re going through creates a positive domino effect, and that’s what we want! As I have learned this to be true, reaching out to someone who is on the path to healing and asking them what they did to help themselves greatly increases your chances of ending the cycle, and chips away at the stigmas. Talking is seriously one of the most underrated forms of finding comfort in a mind of chaos. Terrifying as a psychiatric appointment may sound, they see it every day and that is their job: to help people. Normalizing receiving professional help by talking with friends, family, and even co-workers is just a small part of ending the stigma and taking care of yourself. Two birds with one stone, if you ask me. Practicing listening to those who choose to speak, and practicing compassion also shrinks the stigmas. 

In college, outsiders who are members of “the real world” perhaps don’t see many reasons for many of us to be depressed, anxious, bipolar, and so on. And that right there is the problem, and boy oh boy does it bug me. Just because young people are just that: young,  surrounded by “typical college experiences”, and given handouts to perform well later in life thanks to a good education, doesn’t mean we are also keeping our heads above water. The educational world and hopes for the futures of young adults are moving so quickly, it sometimes feels as if we can barely take a breath. The classic, “what do you have to be sad about?”, “it could be worse,” or “everyone feels that way sometimes,” are prime examples of shoving away a person’s mental illness validity and instilling the “keep your head down” mentality in young adults. It’s almost as if that’s why “burnout” exists.

Forget stressing about finals, I think it’s time to stress about how you’re feeling mentally. It’s important to take time for yourself and find healthy things that make you happy, like journaling, painting, running, biking, talking to friends and yes, even just being lazy for a day and doing nothing. There is a wrong way to be selfish. But when it comes to your mental health, there is also a definite right way, too. 

 This world may be a bit far from being nothing but sunshine and rainbows for everyone, but it’s a growing world. The potential to end the negativity surrounding mental illness is there and it’s practically kicking and screaming to be taken seriously. My advice to those suffering in silence: reach out. Start talking. See someone. Anyone. A friend, a family member and maybe, a psychiatrist. Take a walk, a run, a bath, a drive, a nap, or a night-in or out. And most importantly, say that you’re proud of yourself. Say it out loud because it’s something you need to hear. And I swear, it gets easier. Life isn’t easy, but that’s what makes you strong. And I’m so happy you’re in this life. 

Resources: 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 

1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line 

Text HOME to 741741

Mizzou Crisis and Emergency Services 

573-882-6601

Sydney Scalia is a junior at the University of Missouri studying Journalism with a minor in Italian. She specializes in writing pieces about fashion and style, fitness, lifestyle, and culture such as travel, entertainment, and social media.
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