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MindFULL: Addressing Stigma and Misconceptions about Mental Health


Illustration of a young black woman experiencing a panic attack in the middle of a large, busy crowd.
Image by Unsplash/Getty Images

Hi Readers, welcome to the first installment of the MindFULL series! In light of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to spend time on all mental wellness topics for May. I hope that this series can help those who need it most and that people can grow to understand that mental health is just as important as physical health. Enjoy!


*****


What is Mental Health Stigma?

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness. Over 1 in 5 youth (ages 13-18) either currently or have experienced debilitating mental illness or challenges to their mental health. Lastly, about 1 in 25 adults live with a more serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder.

Despite mental health struggles being relatively commonplace in the U.S., there are still plenty of people who hold a stigma against people with these challenges. Mental Health Stigma doesn't come from just one single thing, more than it is a combination of factors.


How Mental Health Stigmatization Comes About

This type of stigma can come from family, friends, co-workers, etc. A lot of times the stigmatization of mental health issues can be agitated by varying beliefs among different cultures, religions, and familial upbringing.

For citizens of the U.S., there is a huge emphasis on the idea of "pulling yourself by the bootstraps". The culture of rugged individualism can emphasize the idea that working hard is the answer to all of life's problems. And if you are encountering mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, you're simply "letting your emotions get the best of you". There is this idea that if you fall into a depression you have to "toughen up".


An illustration of a young person standing alone, with giant hands surrounding him, signaling "stop"
Image by Unsplash/Eduardo Ramos

For myself and other Black people or people of color (POC), mental health issues have been more of a "sweep under the rug" topic. We carry around the idea that we aren't offered the "luxury" of having something "wrong" with us like our White peers. We have far more to be worried about when it comes to racism, discrimination, and the burden of pursuing excellence on every level. Some of us have probably heard people in our community (oftentimes the older generation) that therapy and counseling are "for White people".

Even in the religious space, I've encountered fellow Christians who believe that suffering from mental health issues of any kind is a sign that you are not doing enough. You're not going to church enough, you're not praying enough, you're not reading your Bible enough, you're not living holy enough, etc. Because if you were really walking properly with God, you wouldn't be suffering mentally or emotionally. If you were really walking with God, a suicidal thought would never have entered your mind.

We also can't forget about how the media portrays mental health, illness, and treatment to its audience. Media portrayals, whether it be novels, television series, or films, have a way of portraying mental health in a way that is captivating to the audience but isn't always accurate. For example, in a lot of classic thriller or action movies, we find that the main antagonist is presenting a criminal portrayal of a severe mental illness. The critically-acclaimed Pscyo (1960), portrays a mentally disturbed man that takes on the persona of his abusive mother as he commits murders. This would lay the groundwork for future films like Split (2016), in which the protagonist Kevin's Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) leads him to kidnap and torture people. He is often portrayed as peaceful and friendly only to become hostile and psychotic just moments after. More can be explored on the topic of psychological disorders present in media here.

Obviously, I'm not saying that we shouldn't enjoy films and television shows, but we have to take media portrayal of mental illness with a grain of salt. People's perceptions of mental health and mental illness aren't carved by watching a movie about it once or twice. The misconceptions typically take a lifetime to create, so it will take some time to deconstruct as well.


Common Misconceptions Around Mental Health

There are plenty to go through, but I want to highlight some of the most common misconceptions surrounding mental health:


Illustration of two faces, separated by an empty space and question mark.
Image by Unsplash/Amanda Sala

"You're Not Depressed, You're Lazy"

Depression is a very common mental disorder and people tend to mistake it as just "feeling a little down". Even Depression itself has ranges: clinical depression, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, bipolar II disorder, postpartum depression, and so on.

A common occurrence for people with a depressive disorder is the lack of motivation and loss of interest, even in things that we love and enjoy. With that in mind, depression can visually look like an extremely messy/cluttered room, going weeks without leaving the house, or going several days without showering. In this state, a person isn't that attuned to their environment and can give off the idea that "they just don't care" or "they're being lazy". Unfortunately, when you're focused on keeping your will to live, dirty dishes and a messy room tend to get placed on the back burner.


"Schizophrenic People Do This, Bi-Polar People Do That, etc."

Media portrayals, especially in film, tend to put mental illness in a one-size-fits-all package for the sake of storytelling. For example, even though vivid hallucinations are one of the psychotic symptoms of Schizophrenia, not everyone with the disorder necessarily has them. Another example is when people regard bipolar disorder as simple "mood swings". In actuality, bipolar disorder entails the cyclic pattern between major depression and periods of mania and there are different categories of bipolar disorder (Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymic).

Sometimes people simplify mental health and mental illnesses in an attempt to make them more "understandable", but this tends to do more harm than good. Unconsciously, when we try to oversimplify someone's disorder, what we're doing is attempting to convince ourselves and others that "it's not that bad". People also tend to dismiss certain mental disorders because they're supposedly "rooted in vanity" or believe it only impacts a certain demographic. This is often pinned to eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia; people often paint an image of a thin White girl when, in actuality, any and everyone can develop an eating disorder. People also tend to reference the most severe cases of an eating disorder in which survivors are visibly underweight. However, eating disorders are mental disorders that can, over time, affect a person's physical state and lead to physical symptoms and illnesses. This means that people who are at a"normal" weight can also develop an eating disorder.


"People Like That Are Dangerous"

This damaging misconception seems to stem from media portrayals of mental health disorders. The portrayal of people with mental health struggles as "ticking time bombs" that could go off at any time is distasteful and highly inaccurate. In fact, people with mental health disorders such as DID or Schizophrenia are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. For the most part, the public automatically views behavior or conduct problems as symptoms of a psychological disorder. This likely comes from the human desire to come up with a reason for something, but all it does is draw the false conclusion that if someone behaves a certain way, it's automatically tied to a disorder.

While certain psychiatric conditions can increase the chance that someone will commit a crime, it is important to note that this likelihood is often paired with other factors that compound. This would include factors such as the presence of long-standing substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, cognitive impairment, and an absence of treatment for said disorder. Even in those cases, it's still a significantly smaller proportion compared to criminals who act out of simple criminal intent.


"We Didn't Have All These Mental Problems When I Was Growing Up"

In an age where people are more encouraged and empowered to seek treatment and diagnosis, it could appear to older generations that "these days everyone has something wrong with them".

What we're seeing, for the most part, is not an increase in mental illnesses but an increase in awareness and diagnosis. It's not as if depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder just started sprouting up in 2020; they have always been around. The problem is that we have not always had the resources that we do now. And while there is still obviously stigma surrounding mental health awareness, we're still in a better state than we were 20, 30, or 50 years prior. Mental health awareness is one of the topics that widen the generation gap. For people from the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, or even Generation X, the topic of mental health and mental disorders was too taboo to discuss in public. For some, if you were someone getting medication and treatment it's because you were "crazy" or "dangerous". Keep in mind that insane asylums weren't disbanded until the 1970s. So it can be pretty shocking for some of them to hear Generation Z talk about their therapy sessions as openly as they would talk about the weather or a sports game.

There are reasons as to why Millenials and Gen Z are much more open to seeking help and treatment, as well as scheduling regular visits with a therapist. And it is even true that there are certain stressors that this generation is encountering that previous generations have not. However, it is a complete oversight to assume that mental disorders were virtually non-existent for past generations or that people of a certain age don't have them. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the time of their upbringing, it was just more common and socially acceptable to suffer in silence. And it is much easier to regard a mental health disorder as a character defect instead of a condition.


Illustration of a young couple; the man is visibly angry while the woman is crying with her head down.
Image by Unsplash/Getty Images

The Consequences of Mental Health Stigma

Ultimately, Mental Health Stigma doesn't just affect people who are suffering from mental health struggles. It affects everyone.

When we carry stigma and misconceptions about mental health, people are much less likely to seek the help and treatment that they need. When people are reluctant to seek help, they risk agitating their symptoms, developing lower self-esteem, having difficulty keeping and creating relationships, and having difficulties at work. In extreme cases, it could lead to dire consequences.

A 2022 poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has revealed that Mental Health Stigma is still a challenge in the workplace. Of the participants, 26% reported having an employee assistance program compared to 28% in 2021 and 39% in 2020. Nearly one in five (19%) say their employer offers telehealth services for mental health care, compared to 22% in 2021 and 27% in 2020. It is a huge concern that as we became further removed from the global pandemic, mental health services began dwindling rather than increasing.

People with mental health conditions also tend to face discrimination in the employment process. Common stereotypes pointing to those with mental health conditions to be unreliable or "fragile" can lead to implicit bias when it comes to hiring new employees. Despite job applications giving potential employees the chance to disclose any mental health disorders or disabilities, people do not always feel safe disclosing this information.

At least 178 cases from 2019 to 2021 have resulted in law enforcement killing the individuals they were called to assist. These calls alerted authorities to people in a mental health crisis or requested wellness checks. While law enforcement may not answer these calls with ill intent, their not being well-equipped to de-escalate these situations is a huge problem and an indirect result of mental health stigma left unchecked.


What Can We Do?

While things have improved over the years, mental health stigma is still a problem that we all should be working to overcome. It is very easy to believe that we don't have power or control over this, but there are still steps we can take to encourage societal growth in the right direction when it comes to mental health:

  • Talk Openly About Mental Health - when we can contextualize and normalize mental health in conversation, it leads to people learning more about it than they knew before. It is why I don't shy away from discussing my experience with anxiety or depression.

  • Conscious Language - a lot of people hear this and rush to the conclusion that "everyone is too sensitive nowadays" but language truly matters. A lot of us are guilty of using mental health disorders as the butt of jokes or as inappropriate adjectives to describe someone. Think of it this way: Is this something I would say in the presence of someone who has this condition? Would they find humor in what I'm saying?

  • Show Compassion (Pity) - You can read more on the difference between "compassion", "Pity" and "sympathy" in this previous post.

  • Educate Yourself and Others - some find this one particularly intimidating. It's not always easy to respond to misperceptions or negative comments regarding mental health and wellness. However, the more we can educate ourselves and those close to us, the better. It also shows that you stand in solidarity with people who have mental health struggles (including that one person in your circle who may be struggling in silence).

  • Reflect On Your Prejudice - none of us are immune to implicit bias. While we are educating others, we can't forget to check ourselves when it comes to pushing narratives that further support mental health stigma. Do I truly show compassion or do I show pity? Do I engage in rhetoric that creates an inaccurate rhetoric toward mental health? Do I overcorrect by infantilizing people with mental health struggles? Do I treat them equally?


Reader, I hope that you are encouraged and empowered to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month and are taking some time to evaluate your own views on mental health. Keep a look out for the next installment of the MindFULL Series!


Thanks for reading,


--Raven

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