Stigmatizing mental illness is harmful and unnecessary

Scout Molder, Editor-in-Chief

What Mental Illness Stigmas Exist?

As a person who struggles with anxiety, depression and OCD, I can personally attest to to the fact that mental illness is extremely stigmatized. When something is stigmatized, it often has a negative or disgraceful connotation, even though it isn’t necessarily bad. People who struggle with mental illness are often seen as “unstable” or “dangerous,” but that isn’t always the case.

Additionally, mental illness is often seen as something extremely different from physical illness. We don’t usually think of having depression as anywhere near as harmful or life threatening as having cancer, even though it actually can be. Since you can’t feel or see mental illness, people often see it as less serious and important than physical illness. That’s not true.

Making a distinction between mental and physical illness can be helpful in classifying and treating different types of illnesses. However, when mental illness is made out to be weird, uncommon, or not serious, it causes mental illness to become stigmatized. This, in turn leads to treatment options for mental illness, such as therapy and medicine, to also be stigmatized, which is equally as harmful.

Why We Shouldn’t Stigmatize

The main problem that exists with the stigmatization of mental illness is that it discourages people from seeking treatment. Personally, I know that the way people see things like depression and anxiety definitely affected my willingness to talk about the problems that were going on in my head. Worrying that people would think I was weird or attention-seeking caused me to suffer in silence with some very serious illnesses for a long time. Just like the flu or a cold, if mental illness goes untreated, it can become very harmful.

Telling someone that their anxiety, depression, or other illness isn’t serious is one of the worst things you can do to someone who is struggling with mental illness. Not only does it discourage them from getting help, it also makes them feel as if their illness isn’t valid. It’s like walking up to a person battling cancer and saying, “You’re fine. This really isn’t that big of a deal.” Invalidating someone’s illness is hurtful and unnecessary. It is never OK to tell someone that something they are struggling with is unimportant, no matter if that something is mental or physical.

Furthermore, it is never OK to tell someone that the way they cope with their mental illness is bad, weird, or wrong. This is another thing that can discourage people from getting the help they need. For example, making fun of someone who goes to therapy because you think it’s uncool could cause that person to stop therapy, which can in turn cause their mental illness to worsen. Saying things like that does nothing to help you and everything to harm them.

What You Can Do

First, stop looking at mental illness as something unusual. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five youth aged 13–18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. Mental illness is an epidemic, so society must stop acting like it’s an oddity.

Second, support people who you know struggle with mental illness. Encourage them to seek treatment, comfort them in times of need, and don’t forget that they are still a normal person. Don’t treat them as if they are fragile and incapable, but don’t discourage them from doing what they need to do to get better. Most importantly, never tell them that what they are dealing with is not a big deal, and never tell them to just “get over it.”

Lastly, and probably most importantly, talk. Talk about mental illness. If you struggle and are comfortable sharing, share. If you don’t struggle but know someone who is, ask them if there’s anything you can do to help. If you don’t understand something, ask someone or look it up. I and many other people who struggle with mental illness have had enough of the tiptoeing around the areas of anxiety, depression, suicide, and self harm. This stuff exists, it’s real, and it’s not going to go away. The best thing we can do to make life a little easier for those who are struggling is to reduce the stigma that exists on mental illness. The more we talk, the smaller that stigma gets. If you can do something as easy as talking to help, why wouldn’t you?