Are We Past Stigmatizing Mental Health Issues?

I’ve seen this a few times now, writers who suggest that we are past needing to raise awareness for mental health issues. The context is important, and it’s not completely wrong either. We do need something beyond awareness – we need actual mental health resources that seem to be completely inaccessible to many right now.

On the other hand, I don’t think we’re beyond needing awareness and fighting stigma.

Recently, I came across this article that argued that while we do have a stigma problem we also have a sensationalism problem too. I’ll quote from the article to give you an explanation of that.

It is becoming increasingly common to see words like depression and anxiety tossed around when describing feelings of sadness and worry. While everyone experiences sadness and worry, it is not the same as being depressed or having an anxiety disorder. When people misuse these words, it can trivialize the real struggles that people with mental illness face. It diminishes the severity of these illnesses, and people begin to brush off the importance of seeking professional help.

I think Raina makes a very valid point. It’s complicated and layered. Let me see if I can give you some examples:

When a famous person or social media influencer talks about their struggle with anxiety or depression we consider them brave for talking about it. We also see wildly successful, often very good-looking, people in the prime of their lives. Dwayne Johnson doing an interview and sharing about his struggles with depression is brave, but it’s also not something we are likely to stigmatize. We then might find others who look at that and decide that their “sad” day is depression, or their nervousness about an exam or a first day on a new job is anxiety. After all, the famous person they saw talking about it didn’t look too debilitated, right? So those disorders can’t be that bad, which leads to an odd sort of stigma where we are expected to just “fight through it” like these other people I see on TV or TikTok talking about depression, right?

Except that’s not it. The people who have depression that is debilitating aren’t doing interviews. We don’t see people who are homeless and in need of mental health treatment on our Instagram feeds calmly chatting about their depression or anxiety. We don’t watch people have manic episodes or delusions on TV very often. Those people are out there too and you wouldn’t use the same words to describe your bad day as you would what those folks are going through.

But, we don’t have different words. Just different impacts for different people where some of the impacts carry very little stigma, while others carry a ton.

Let’s use another celebrity example:

How many of us have heard about how brave Michael Phelps or Simone Biles are for being open about their mental health struggles?

How many of us have also heard Amanda Bynes called “f@#$ing crazy?”

What’s the difference? The first group speaks calmly in interviews and speeches about the struggle, while Amanda’s struggle and manic episodes have been on full display in the news. They don’t look good, they are anything but calm, and they make us all feel very uncomfortable.

We don’t like that mental health conversation. We also don’t like to think about mental health when it comes to people who are either unhoused or incarcerated either. Again, those are not calm conversations with successful people. Those are some very ugly conversations, sometimes with people who can barely even hold their thoughts together long enough to talk about it.

But they are human beings too. Human beings with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues, with traumatic pasts, living in traumatic situations.

Nothing tells me that we still have a long way to go when it comes to stigma like learning about a clearly distressed young man getting killed on a subway while other passengers sat and watched. Because his situation was uncomfortable. His manic behavior made them uncomfortable and all of the compassion for other people who struggle with mental health issues went right out the window in this case. This wasn’t a well-put-together person speaking calmly, this was very different. The same core issue – mental health – but different results. One group is acceptable. The other not so much.

That’s stigma.

Similarly, while some of our circles might seem to have gotten accepting of mental health issues (in some cases, as I described above) if you wander out into the world and some of the groups outside of your little bubble you might be surprised to see just how much stigma still exists. I see it in certain places more than others. It still exists.

We might have gotten to the point where some people are more accepting of certain types and levels of mental health struggles, but we still have a very long way to go.

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