The Stigmatization of Mental Illness

Imagine walking down the hallway toward class. You’ve done this a million times. In fact, you do this every day. Yet for some reason, today is different. You feel on edge and every little thing irritates you. The walls feel too close and the voices around you get louder and harder to understand. You try to step to the side, but the crowd of people shuffling to class traps you. The tension in your chest burns like you’ve swallowed a ball of fire. You’re extremely aware of the gazes around you, boring into your skull, fueling the pounding headache. You find your seat and, finally, release the breath you didn’t know you were holding.

Sounds chaotic, doesn’t it? For those of us who experience anxiety, these feelings and sensations are regular occurrences. Sadly, the chaos isn’t even the worst of it.

Imagine experiencing this daily hell alone. Not by choice, but out of fear of rejection from peers, friends, and even family. It’s maddening to say the least. On days that you need the most support, you find yourself crawling back into a hole of shame.

I’ll be blunt: The stigma around mental illness has crippled our society. We, as humans, millennials, and members of our ever-changing society, have a responsibility to our generation and future generations to do better. I’m willing to bet that each and every one of us has experienced some sort of stigma or loneliness from our interactions with the rest of society. Channel those incidences and work to end it.

This may come as a shock to you: Mental illness is a real illness. In fact, about 42.5 million people in the United States alone have a documented mental illness. Look around you. Pick out any four people; any four will do. Statistically, one of those people could be silently suffering with a mental illness. The commonality of this condition, however, has not been able to overpower the strength of stigma, for the negative connotation of “mental illness” has existed for a long time.

According to Psychology Today, there are two different types of stigma: social and perceived. Social stigma encompasses the perceptions of ignorant people and the way they choose to act on their opinions through, you guessed it, discrimination. Perceived stigma is more of an internalized fear of judgment, which can be felt without having experienced stigma personally. Social stigma has its roots in the media, culture, and general lack of exposure to people suffering from mental illness. In media, people suffering from anxiety or OCD are often portrayed as “crazy” or someone who has “lost their marbles”. While anxiety and OCD are both conditions where obsession and mania are prevalent, people who suffer from these illnesses seem still relatively “normal” on the surface. Meaning that, most of the time, when someone is feeling the symptoms of their illness, they won’t outwardly show it. This inaccuracy has led people to believe that mental health is something to fear, rather than an entity needing the same attention as physical health. In addition, many tend to deny the existence of mental illness based on cultural values. Certain upbringings can instill a fear of failure and weakness in people. While strength and determination are great qualities to hold, it’s imperative to realize that emotional well-being contributes significantly to a healthy life.

Having to deal with a disorder, the shame from having it, or even the denial of its existence can lead to disastrous consequences. Confronting mental illness is an extremely difficult conversation to have. I completely understand that it’s hard to talk about such a taboo idea and admit that you need help all at once. But leaving mental illnesses untreated only allows the symptoms to escalate, contrary to the popular belief that avoidance (the “ignoring until it goes away” technique) and ignorance reduces the problem. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a lack of treatment increases the risk of having a serious and chronic medical condition. In addition to this, ignoring the severity of mental illness can heighten suicide rates. NAMI states that “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the third leading cause of death for people aged 10–24, and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.”  

Within my high school alone, there were three suicides while I was a student. Those who were close to those three amazing people all said the same four words: “We had no idea.”

I know that many of us would like to support those who are suffering. Many of us want to help. We cannot allow stigma to continue to hold back those who need to speak out. Make it easier for people accept their mental illnesses and talk about what they’re going through by battling the stigma around it. The best way to educate is through familiarizing oneself with the different illnesses. Mental illness is VERY real. It consumes people every day. Until we work to provide guidance and support, it will continue to do so.

If you are suffering from a mental illness, just know that you are not alone. I know that it can feel like it’s just you and your mental illness, but there are always people around you to talk with. UTD offers so many amazing resources for students, free of charge (which is music to every college student’s ears). The Student Success Center is home to a variety of different services, namely the Student Counseling Center.  Upon visiting their website, you’ll find a list of different topics concerning mental health. In addition to this, you will find an assortment of online information and tutorials to browse. Although this is amazing material to begin with, I do encourage you to visit the counseling center. It doesn’t matter whether or not you feel you need treatment. The counseling center is open to anyone. All records from the center are completely confidential. If and when you do decide to visit the center, no one will know unless you decide to share. Not even the school will have records of it! Remember that everyone has problems and everyone can use a little guidance, especially in these few critical college years. We are fortunate enough to have these resources at our disposal.
I’m not going to lie: Mental health has never been easy for me to talk about. Coming from a pretty traditional upbringing, I didn’t really understand the importance of being mentally healthy or even the scope of mental illnesses. During the moments where I felt down and mentally deteriorating, my lack of resources and understanding made it more difficult to communicate exactly what I was feeling. It wasn’t until recently that I started to really acknowledge the impact of mental health on my daily life. Taking small steps toward a healthier mindset has helped me take charge of my thoughts and allowed me to finally begin enjoying my college life. Don’t allow stigma to keep you from doing the same. If you don’t feel as mentally healthy as you would like, then take initiative and take the steps toward where you want to be.