“Just Get Over It”: The Stigmatization of Mental Illness in American Society

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States – one in four Americans experience a mental illness every year.  We might think that mental illness is rare, but every one of us has at least one friend, family member, or coworker suffering from a mental health condition.  It affects everyone, regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion.

Yet, the topic of mental illness is one of society’s biggest taboos.  We talk about physical ailments with great ease, but keep our mental health troubles to ourselves, anticipating the negative consequences of our admission.  And our silence is a direct result of the stigma surrounding mental health in American society – a mark of disgrace is attached to society’s perception of mental illness, subsequently assigning a set of predetermined beliefs and attributes to those assumed to fall under the label of “mentally ill.”

What is it?

Stigma is loosely defined by the CDC as “the prejudice, avoidance, rejection and discrimination directed at people believed to have an illness, disorder or other trait perceived to be undesirable”.  In terms of mental health, stigma is considered to be the negative attitudes and beliefs that society possesses towards those with mental illness.

Public attitude toward mental illness is largely negative – a 2007 survey found that while 57% of adults without mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic towards those with mental illness, only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms agreed.  Negative public attitudes often take the form of stereotypes, many of which label those with a mental illness as ‘crazy’, ‘irrational’, ‘incompetent’, or ‘dangerous’.

The stigmatization of mental illness in American society places feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation upon those who suffer from mental health conditions.  The stigma attached to mental illness can be described as a campaign of “blaming and shaming”.  People afflicted by mental illness are often blamed for it, their feelings are trivialized and invalidated by microaggressions such as “it’s all in your head” or “just get over it.”

The mental health stigma is often internalized by people with mental illnesses in what is known as a “self-stigma.” Through self-stigma, those with mental illnesses share in society’s belief that their illness is a weakness that renders them ‘lesser’ than those without. As a result, they are reluctant to seek treatment, exacerbating the severity of their symptoms and worsening their condition.

Why is it a problem?

The stigma surrounding mental illness is more than just a stereotype – it’s active discrimination.  Society’s negative perception of mental health problems puts those afflicted at a marked disadvantage, as deep-rooted fear and misunderstanding lead to behaviors and policies that place undue hardship on the lives of those with mental health conditions.  

In America, discrimination towards those suffering from mental illnesses is overwhelmingly systemic.  A person with a mental illness is more likely to be criminalized than receive the help that they need.  A 2010 study found that there are more people with mental illness in jails and prisons than hospitals.  Furthermore, people with mental illnesses have higher rates of homelessness as a result of housing and employment discrimination.

Social discrimination towards those with mental illnesses is especially common – the most prominent example being that of social distancing, or the “exclusion of individuals in a variety of social situations.” As outlined by the graph below, social distancing can present itself in a number of ways – all of which take some form of prejudice and social discrimination.

Image credit: American Psychological Association

How can we combat it?

The best way to end the stigmatization of mental illness is by talking about it.  Stigmas arise primarily from a lack of understanding and awareness about the realities of mental illness.  Those who perpetuate the stigma aren’t doing so maliciously.  They are doing so out of ignorance, and the solution to ignorance is education.  By encouraging people to share their personal stories and struggles with mental illness with others, stereotypes can be counteracted and public attitudes changed.   

Another way to tackle the mental health stigma is by adjusting the language we use when talking about mental illness.  We often don’t realize that the little things we say can be derogatory and invalidating towards those with mental health conditions – for example, using the term “OCD” to characterize an affinity for neatness trivializes the experiences of those who actually suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Image credit: National Alliance on Mental Illness

A person is not defined by their mental illness.  It is not a character flaw or a weakness.  It is an illness, equally as deserving of our attention as diabetes, cancer, and other physical maladies.  Mental illness is something that no one should be made to feel ashamed of, and hopefully, with increased understanding and awareness, no one will.  

 

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Article Written By: Veronica Correa

Dealing with Mental Health On UNC’s Campus

Hi!  I am one of the over 350 million individuals worldwide who lives with depression.  I have dealt with these feelings for a long time, but I found recently that at a large university that can feel so competitive at times, it is easy for these feelings to resurface.  I also deal with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and these two combined can be incredibly difficult to keep up with school and extracurriculars.  The feelings of constant worry and that I have to prove myself or else I could never be successful are overwhelming.  Additionally, depression makes me lethargic, withdrawn from my social sphere, and defeated.  This combination has taken a drastic toll on my physical, emotional, and academic well-being.

Earlier this semester my issues became severe to the point where I ended up in the UNC Emergency Room.  As someone who has always felt uneasy in hospital settings, this experience proved to be unsettling in and of itself.  At a point where I had hit rock bottom, I had no idea what was going on or when I would be able to leave.  I understand that a hospital stay is not meant to be luxurious – yet there is so much more we need to do for mental health care, not just at UNC Hospitals, but as a society.

I am incredibly grateful for the number of students on this campus who do so much work for mental health awareness.  Organizations such as Rethink, who conduct monthly trainings, Active Minds, and the Mental Health Ambassadors program are examples of student organizations who conduct important advocacy work and who try to battle the stigmas surrounding mental health.  It is necessary to realize that some students may come from a background where a lot of stigma came from their families, or they do not have the financial resources to seek care.  From what I have observed, these groups are trying to help everyone in need.

It can also be difficult to keep up with the rest of one’s responsibilities while one deals with a mental illness.  After I was released from the hospital, I realized that taking 17 credit hours, working part time, and the rest of my extracurriculars was too much for me to handle.  My grades were suffering, and I had a hard time keeping up with the rest of my obligations.  I decided to apply for a medical appeal and withdraw from one of my courses after the regular drop deadline for the semester.  During this process, I had to write a statement explaining to the academic committee how I could prevent my situation from happening in the future.  When I spoke to a psychiatrist at CAPS, she said that a good number of psychological appeals get denied because the applicant is unable to elaborate on this.  This was frustrating to me because there are many days where I am not in control of my mental illness.  Even after medications and counseling appointments, I cannot say for certain whether or not I will be able to avoid another severe crisis.  While I wait for the final decision on my application, I will continue to spend the upcoming weeks having to attend my class and do all the assignments for a course I am no longer in due to my mental health.  From the conversations I have had, it feels like UNC itself could care less about students who are seriously struggling.

I have also heard the stories of other students who have been upset and discouraged after seeking help through the school system.  The issues I hear about include having students being turned away for help completely, or they are referred to off-campus providers when they do not have transportation or the financial ability.  While I am very fortunate in that I can access off-campus treatment and get the help I need, not everyone has this privilege.  As a result, people are not able to get the regular help they need on-campus. Even after an initial walk-in at CAPS, it can be a while until somebody is able to schedule a follow-up appointment.  While there is only so much funding available and so many people that are able to work at a given time, but a lack of access can be incredibly detrimental to those who need help.  When somebody hears these negative experiences from somebody else who tried to get help, it can feel like there is nothing else they can do.  The system needs to be accessible and supportive for those who are suffering.

If there’s anything I’ve learned this semester, it’s that a lot of times you get worse before you get better.  I’m still on a long battle uphill, and sometimes I feel frustrated because it feels like I’ve exhausted my resources.  Asking for help is never easy, and it’s hard when you are not believed and turned away.  Despite all of this, I would highly encourage anybody who is reading this and who may be struggling to do so.  I would never want anybody else to close themselves off for so long and to give up on treatment the way I did in the past.

For those who are in immediate distress, there is a 24-hour CAPS hotline at 919-966-2281 in addition to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Article Written By: Veronica Correa

Grand Old Party or Guilty Old Party? The Complicity of Republican Lawmakers in the Age of Trump

As citizens, we put our trust in elected officials to uphold the values we hold most dear.  We expect them to stay true to our morals, protect our rights, and do what’s best for the public – regardless of partisan loyalties.  And most of all, we expect them to hold the president accountable.  Especially now.

Through his belligerent tweets, attempts to delegitimize the free press, blatant disregard for the truth, nativist politics and just plain bullying, President Trump has proven time and time again that he is a poor leader and an even poorer representation of American values.  Now more than ever, America needs its lawmakers to take a stand.  But the age of Trump drags on, Republicans have seemingly fallen through on their obligation to defend our democracy, instead choosing to sit back and – literally – watch it unfold.

You don’t have to look far to find the reason behind the GOP’s complicity.  Party politics often trump rationality and human decency on both sides of the aisle.  News outlets frequently leak reports of Republicans’ ~private~ disapproval of Trump, yet politicians seldom convey these concerns publicly.  Rationalizations such as “if I took the time to criticize everything the president said, I’d be busy all day” have become the GOP’s best friend in the age of Trump.  Their criticisms are few and far between, always taking the form of words rather than political action.  By laying low, they enable the president’s bigotry, lies, and childish behavior, their own prospects for reelection always in the back of their minds.

Some GOP senators such as Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, as well as Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, have in fact taken to the public stage to denounce Trump’s presidency.  And while many – including myself – find this admirable, these men constitute only three of 52 Republicans in the Senate.  There are supposedly dozens more who share these concerns – Sen. Corker, who has accused Trump of “debasing” the nation, asserts that “the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.”  Similarly, Sen. Flake, a longtime Trump critic, has long held that his party is “in denial” about President Trump, urging his fellow lawmakers to speak up and end their “accommodation of the unacceptable.”

“Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, “Someone should do something!” without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.”

-Arizona Senator Jeff Flake

In politics, words mean very little if they don’t lead to action.  Cue the age-old saying: actions speak louder than words.  And in Congress, it’s apparent that party speaks louder than principle.  It’s one thing to speak out against President Trump’s policies – but it’s quite another thing to vote against them.  Take the July Obamacare repeal bill(s) for example.  Leading up to the vote, a significant number of Republican senators expressed concern about the contents of the bill, publicly denouncing it as a ‘fraud’ and a ‘disaster’.  But in the end, they stayed loyal to their party, ultimately voting in favor of the bill despite the many costs it threatened to impose upon their constituents.

In light of all of this, I can only wonder – GOP senators, with whom does your loyalty lie?  When push comes to shove, who will you choose to protect?  Your party or your people?  Democracy simply does not work if elected officials don’t do their part to uphold it.  Enabling a president’s reckless behavior can result in potentially unchecked power – that’s how despotism surfaces.  If you love America as much as you say you do, then why won’t you fight to protect it?

With all due respect Senators, you will never ‘make America great again’ by sitting idly and enabling the demise of the institutions that made it great in the first place.  Your office gives you an obligation to defend democracy and protect the people who helped you get there – not your Republican allies, but your constituents. Compromising principle in favor of partisan loyalty, normalizing the endless stream of lies and indecency, abdicating political and moral responsibility in efforts to sustain your own incumbency – to engage in such flagrant complicity is dishonorable and a disservice to the American people.

The clock is ticking on a presidency that has long been on the brink of implosion.  But time has not yet run out – no matter how damning the silence, it’s never too late to do the right thing.  And so, I suggest: be more like Jeff Flake.  Be more like John McCain.  Be more like Bob Corker.  American democracy is calling your name… will you answer?

Article Written By: Paige Masten