Blurring the Line Between Mentally Healthy and Mentally Ill

It is finally time for us as a society to take responsibility for the mess that we have created and redefine what it means to be mentally healthy. It is an unfortunate truth that the phrase “mental illness” holds more negative connotations than positive ones in today’s society. Far too often do people hear the words mental illness and inevitably jump to wildly inaccurate assumptions that pair mental illness with violence and madness. Words like “crazy”, “psycho”, “insane” and “nuts” are just some of the few derogatory terms that are commonly used to identify those suffering from mental illness. Those with mental illnesses are consistently defined as being nothing more than a diagnosis, and this act of labeling them only contributes to the negative self image so many mentally ill people have. And it justifies the encouragement of the discrimination and oppression of countless people who suffer from mental illness.

“When I think of mental illness I envision a person who needs help,” said Jonny Cattuna a junior at Rutgers University. When asked about how he would treat someone he discovered as having a mental illness he states: “I would treat them cautiously and try not to upset them for their own sake, partly because I’m led to believe that they have a short temper and that they are unstable.” According to Mentalhealth.gov: “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.” The stigma that all mentally ill individuals are violent and dangerous is simply a myth.

The entertainment industry doesn’t exactly help the process of getting rid of these outrageous generalizations either. More often than not you will see media depictions of the mentally ill as being these erratic, aggressive individuals who people are afraid of, or worse: they romanticize it into a sort of dramatic twist in the plot. This kind of representation is so destructive because it teaches people that they should be afraid of those with mental illnesses and it creates the belief that they should be cast off from society. Not only does this negatively impact the suffering individuals themselves, but it also justifies the society’s lack of dedication in providing these people with the necessary care and resources to assimilate into society.

No one would think to criticise or discriminate people with conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or even cancer because they are “physical” illnesses. They are not denied access to medical treatment simply because of the type of illness they suffer from. But if someone has a mental illness, like major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, that does not register to many people as being something that is out of the person’s control. Or worse, people appropriate it and belittle them by saying things like: “He is so bipolar,” or “I’m so OCD when it comes to…” These behaviors are all too common in our personal interactions these days all because of this ever-changing stigma of mental illness.

Before people began to study mental health in depth mental illness was thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body. Our lack of awareness and education allowed us to draw these rash assumptions and would leave us satisfied with what we thought was a definitive cause. According to the Foundation for Excellence in Health Care: “To the extent the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion took hold in our popular culture, it was mainly due to distorted or oversimplified versions of the catecholamine hypothesis… It was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.” In short this theory attempts to link a person’s stress hormone levels to the presence of particular illnesses but it is not nearly that simple to conclude. Mental illness is a severely complicated subject matter, especially when discussing the causes of specific illnesses. One’s mental health is determined by a range of factors, trying to connect the cause specifically to one’s biology is just not realistic, it can impact a person’s risk of developing a mental illness but it is not the sole cause.

Although people have begun to become more educated on mental health there is still much that the average person does not know about the topic, and the lack of knowledge only strengthens the stigma around mental illness. We as members of the society determine what is considered normal and abnormal behavior, and therefore we create what it means to function properly in society. One key aspect of mental illness is the presence of dysfunction or the lack of being able to adhere to “normal” behavior. Just as we decide what is the norm and what isn’t we also create the theory of mental illness. We have the power to dictate the way we perceive mental illness and it is our collective responsibility to correct those misconceptions that are embedded in our society.

Before efforts were made to bring attention to the issue of providing proper treatment to those suffering from mental illness, prior to 1955 people would resort to sending them to institutionalized facilities where their lives were reduced to a strict schedule and minimal freedom. They would be given medication as a primary form of treatment and they would rarely reach the point of rejoining society, that is until the 1950s when the era of deinstitutionalization caught wind. This movement saw to it that patients were transferred to community-based health services for proper treatment and state hospitals began to close.

Throughout the years, activists have made strides in achieving equal rights for the mentally ill as well as trying to erase the distasteful stigma associated with them. But those strides are only small steps in the grand scheme of things because we as a society neglected to address this issue for so long and inevitably created the idea that it is unimportant. Dorthea Dix was one prominent advocate for gaining federal support for the treatment of the mentally ill and providing services and resources necessary for them to be able to function in society. This also meant getting services for those who need guidance in finding employment, considering how often the mentally ill were discriminated against in terms of being denied access to job opportunities.

NAMI, or the National Alliance for Mental Health, is just one of many organizations dedicated to the pursuit of educating the public on mental health and mental illness. They work to increase the overall awareness of the importance of mental health and keeping the conversation alive. Part of the drawback of the stigma of mental health is that people are discouraged from seeking help because of the negative association that is tied to the mentally ill. NAMI encourages people to get involved by volunteering for crisis hotlines, walking at NAMIWalk, and by joining a NAMI on Campus club in order to spread the movement and fight to break the false stigma. They also sell NAMI x Lokai bracelets where proceeds go to supporting the movement’s pursuit of education, public policy reforms, and overall public awareness of mental health.

It is our responsibility as a society to refuse to let this issue to continue to go unaddressed. The destructive stigma of mental illness is a socially constructed interpretation that is founded on myths and inaccuracies that can be refuted if we just advocate for awareness and acceptance. No more can we allow stereotypes to dictate our perception of something we do not fully understand, especially when those misconceptions can have a significant impact on a person’s access and opportunities. It is time for us to take responsibility for the injustices imposed upon a group of people suffering from an illness like any other and it is time for us to feel comfortable discussing something that is completely normal.