Destigmatize mental illness


By Alex Swanson

Americans have a very strange relationship with mental illness.

Most often, the majority of us attempt to hush up mental illness wherever we encounter it in ourselves or others. We bind mental health to peoples’ personalities much too intimately, which causes us to be embarrassed to admit to struggling with a condition that could be perceived as “crazy.”

When we do take the time to discuss mental health, we do so as though participating in a binary: Either we belittle, trivialize or normalize disorders or we treat them, to an unrealistic extent, as terrifying, uncontrollable problems.

Tuesday evening, the United Muslim and Minority Advocates on campus hosted a lecture by Dr. Sarah N. Syed of the Khalil Institute to create a discussion around the stigmas of mental illness and its intersection with race and other sociological lenses.

Having discussions regarding the reality of and treatment options available for mental health disorders is essential to ensure that students at the University can recognize when signs of mental health disorders begin to develop.

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The fact is that mental illness is so prevalent that, in all likelihood, you or someone you are close with will probably experience it to some degree. Approximately one in every five adults experiences mental illness in a given year in the United States.

When you narrow it down to only the mental illnesses that interfere with everyday activity, the number still remains surprisingly large. About one in 25 adults will experience a severe mental disorder within their lifetime.

Given this immense risk, students have to know that there are a multitude of resources available for them on campus, including the Counseling Center and McKinley Health Center if they believe they may be developing a mental illness.

I’ve come across too many students who swear they could never take medication for a mental health disorder, especially ones like anxiety or depression, because they don’t want to alter their personalities, alter who they are.

That inaccurate mindset trivializes the issue. It also, incorrectly, assumes that a person and their mental illness are one and the same.

Similarly, I’ve seen far too many students become frustrated with a friend with a mental health disorder because it feels as though he or she is being personally apathetic, mean, high-strung, etc. But someone with a mental illness cannot control his or her symptoms anymore than a person with a cold can control a cough.

Mental illnesses have to be taken seriously. We have to begin treating mental illnesses, on a social level, the same way that we would any physical ailment. We must eradicate the stigma that exists around seeking therapy, psychotherapy, medication, etc., for mental wellness.

We can’t afford to not be talking about this –— we certainly can’t afford to be embarrassed about this. What we should be doing instead is dispelling popular myths that restrict people with these disorders from seeking help.

Further, there are critical aspects to mental wellness to which we must eventually devote time for discussion, for instance how our perception of mental health intersects with race, socioeconomic status, nationality, gender, etc.

One of the most insightful discussions at Tuesday’s lecture was when students brought up that mass shootings are characterized differently by mental health as according to race. The media tends to emphasize that white offenders are likely struggling with mental health, but if a Muslim man were the shooter, it would likely be characterized as terrorism.

Women report mental health issues far more often than men. Many times, women’s mental health issues are stigmatized to a lesser degree than men’s. We need to actively be discovering why and how we can change that.

But we cannot even begin to have those discussions on a meaningful and influential level unless we begin by being more generally open about mental health. This is an issue that will directly or indirectly affect every single person on this campus; it’s hard to ignore.

Alex is a senior in [email protected]