Stop stigmatizing mental illness

Illustrated by Kassidy Weber

Content warning: This story discusses eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide.

Despite the fact that there’s a whole week dedicated to mental health awareness from Oct 7-13, some people still don’t take it seriously. They dismiss depression and anxiety as “attention-seeking” and demonize less common mental disorders like Schizophrenia and Antisocial Personality Disorder, spreading the idea that these people are dangerous or evil. This is frustrating for anyone with even a basic understanding of what mental illness is, and it’s downright dangerous for those who are suffering.

Mental illness is a condition where a disturbance in someone’s thinking, emotions, or behavior begins to get in the way of their lives. According to the National Library of Medicine, one in five people will experience a mental illness (the most common are anxiety disorders and depression), yet only 41% of those with mental illness receive treatment. This is partly because of cost, as therapy and medication are expensive, but it also has to do with the stigma around discussing mental health.

Mental illness is often taken too lightly. Many cultures discourage people from showing emotion, and most societies think it’s “unmanly” for men to show their emotions. When people hear that a family member or friend is suffering, they might suggest eating healthier, getting exercise, or simply “staying positive” as a solution to a problem that is much more complicated. Although these things can help ease mental illness, they are not enough on their own. No one would tell a friend with a broken bone to fix it by doing yoga and drinking green juice, and it’s equally ridiculous to think mental illness can be cured the same way.

Sometimes movies, books, and TV shows use mental illnesses as attention-grabbing premises for their stories. The movie “Split” (2016) portrays people with Dissociative Identity Disorder as evil murderers, and the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why” glorifies suicide and shows a graphic suicide scene that can trigger viewers. This disrespect of mentally- ill people in the media often leads to kids using serious medical conditions as slang words. Throwing around the word “bipolar” because someone changes their mind a lot or “anorexic” because someone is extremely thin makes it more difficult to take mental illness seriously.

Some people even go so far as to romanticize mental illness (on social media especially), making it seem like something special or desirable. Some communities on Tumblr are particularly harmful; the “pro- Anorexia” community encourages young girls (and sometimes boys) to push their own physical limits and see how little they can eat, and the “self harm” tag contains graphic images that influence people to hurt themselves. Many blogs also tell mentally- ill people to refuse treatment or stop engaging in healthy behaviors that will help them get better. Clearly, these toxic blogs are run by people who are mentally unstable as well and who have lost their faith in getting better.

These attitudes toward mental illness have a negative effect on people who are actually  struggling and need help. If the family members and friends of a person with an anxiety disorder joke about having panic attacks, they might decide that their emotions are silly and shy away from asking others for support. If a person with bulimia sees hundreds of blogs online encouraging their behavior, they might decide that it is a positive part of their life and continue endangering their health. But just because you’ve never experienced mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t understand and help loved ones who are affected.

Rather than getting information about mental illness from sources that misrepresent these conditions, get it from real-life people who have experience. The first step is simply to listen. Talk to family members or friends who have a mental illness before making assumptions. The media might show an unrealistic portrayal of depression, but TED talks, YouTube channels, and other online medical resources  show realistic accounts of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.

Understanding mental illness breaks down the barriers between people and helps lower the stigma, allowing those who are struggling to get help without feeling ashamed. Taking these conditions seriously will create a safer, happier world for everyone.

If you are struggling, please seek professional help, or make an appointment with your counselor. If you can’t afford therapy, websites like 7cupsoftea offer free trained listeners and counseling at low prices.