An Exploration of Mental Health in Modern Society
You hear references to mental illness everywhere: Guys at the bar recounting horror stories about their psycho ex-girlfriends, the overly organized friend being teased for being OCD, or perhaps a change of plans or emotion being chastised as Bipolar. These terms are tossed around carelessly and negatively; their meaning is lost in a vague cloud of stereotyped symptoms and misunderstood real-life applications. It is uncommon for people to question their understanding of these disorders and how that understanding, or misunderstanding, affects their views and interactions with real-world mental illness. Thus, these examples are only a drop in the tidal wave of misconception, stereotyping, stigma, and discrimination surrounding mental illness in society today. The questions must then be raised; what is mental illness, how does it differ from mental health, and finally, why does it matter?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Mental illnesses are conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Such conditions may be occasional or long-lasting (chronic) and affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. . . Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Despite the stigma, issues with mental health are quite common. “More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. . . 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Despite being common, researched, and managed by those affected, mental illnesses are feared, misunderstood, and by extension, stigmatized. Combating this stigma is vital. If 1 in 25 Americans live with a serious mental illness, that is a huge portion of the population being affected by stigma and discrimination. With more understanding and open communication, people living with mental illness would be more likely to seek help. This not only vastly improves their lives and the lives of those they interact with, but it opens an often previously closed door to productivity and societal contribution.
In an article written by The American Psychiatric Association, a few ideas are presented as to why the bias rampant in the world today exists. “Stigma often comes from lack of understanding or fear. Inaccurate or misleading media representations of mental illness contribute to both those factors” (American Psychiatric Association). Much of what we as humans fear is rooted in what we do not understand. For example, the monster under the bed or a paranormal haunting. If you have never had serious psychiatric issues in your past, exaggerated stories like those portrayed in media would be understandably frightening. The first example that comes to my mind is from the 2019 film Midsommar in which the protagonist, Dani, loses her entire family when, in a bipolar episode, her sister kills both of her parents and then herself. If you knew nothing else about bipolar, this would immediately give the term a negative and dangerous association in your mind. This is especially frustrating considering bipolar patients are rarely a danger to anyone but themselves. Or at least, that is why it is so frustrating to me.
I am mentally ill. I am officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2, Complex PTSD, and ADHD. For many years I was ashamed of this fact and did whatever I could to hide it lest I be bunched in with the ‘crazies’ by my peer group. This led to a worsening of my condition and abysmal self-esteem. This is called Self-Stigma. “Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people with mental illness have about their own condition” (American Psychiatric Association). I struggled, and still struggle, with the concept of being mentally ill making me less of a person. In my teenage years, I eventually decided there was no point in trying to get better since I would never be capable of success or meaningful relationships due to my disorders. I had been wearing a mask for everyone, desperately trying not to let slip that I took medicine every morning and night or that I saw a therapist once a week. God forbid anyone learn I had spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I would google my disorders and read people’s stories of how their bipolar ex-girlfriend wrecked their lives or how PTSD ruined so and so’s marriage. There was so much negativity surrounding my mental illnesses that I thought other people, upon learning I had such disorders, would cease to see me as myself. That any merits I possessed and the traits that define me as a person would be washed away in a tsunami of labels. Thus, at the age of 17, I stopped taking my medicine, dropped out of high school, and had a passerby not called the authorities, I would have ended my own life. This is why I feel so strongly that the way we as a society talk about mental illness is immensely important. I and people like me are not sensitive snowflakes getting upset by harmless verbiage, we are bringing awareness to a long-overlooked issue into how society handles bias towards the mentally ill. While I was lucky enough to get help and am now thriving in ways I never thought possible, others have, unfortunately, not found the same fortune. My dad joined the army as soon as he graduated high school summer of 1988. Fresh-faced and ready to serve his country, he was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. The war was brutal and left a now 21-year-old war veteran with no ideas about what his life would become. He took a job at a local supermarket and enrolled in a few classes at the local community college, but had trouble adjusting to civilian life. He was haunted by what he saw- nightmares and flashbacks a now common occurrence. The friends he had left did not know him anymore and he, likewise, no longer recognized himself. So, feeling like he had nowhere else to turn, he took to self-medication simply to survive the day-to-day. He told me once that he had thought about going to see a therapist like some of the guys from his platoon did, but embarrassment won over. He said that he was a soldier and that soldiers were supposed to live and breathe American values and ideals. He felt acknowledging something was wrong would be letting his country down. That his family would be ashamed of him and the small-town newspaper that had called him a hero upon his return would regret the praise and accolades they’d given him. Thus, he suffered like that for another 28 years.
I lost my dad to addiction on July 4th, 2020, at the age of 49 to complete liver and kidney failure. Everything about losing him is hard, but one of the worst things was that it was preventable. I tried for years to get him help. I’d send him the names of VA psychiatrists and therapists who were either veterans themselves or had experience helping people like him. I’d teach him some of the skills I was being taught in therapy and try to convince him to sit in on some sessions. Unfortunately, his answer was always the same. He did not want anyone other than me to know what was happening. He did not want to be seen as weak or a failure. I wish I could have gotten him to see, as I now strive to show every person struggling with mental illness, that his disease did not make him weak. Instead, it is a testament to how strong he was. Despite never-ending internal turmoil, he owned his own carpentry company, operated a photography business, volunteered his time to charities in Atlanta, and most important to me, was a wonderful man and father.
I am tired of living in a world where stories like this are commonplace. A world where people live in a state of constant anxiety and shame about people unrightfully judging the struggles they deal with daily. I am tired of our conditions being written off as being overly sensitive or being accused of attention-seeking when reaching out for help or support. These issues, while handled much better in modern times than they had been previously, will not be solved on their own. It will take a group effort involving everyone -mentally ill or not- to combat bias and discrimination around mental illness.
So, what can you do?
According to The American Psychiatric Association, the best thing to do is get vocal about it. “Talk openly about mental health. . . Educate yourself and others. . . Be conscious of language- Remind people that words matter. Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. . . Be honest about treatment- normalize mental health treatment, just like other health care treatment” (American Psychiatric Association). It is not a lost cause. Research, treatment, and medical understanding of mental illness are far better than it was even just 50 years ago. Something as simple as talking openly about mental illness can lessen fear based on misunderstanding and render the topic normal. If each person were to educate themselves about mental illness and normalize mental health, it would not just be those with serious psychiatric issues benefiting; the world would become a safer, more understanding space the likes of which people like myself did not think previously possible. That is why mental health matters.
American Psychiatric Association. “Stigma, Prejudice, and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness.” 2020. Psychiatry.org, Reviewed by Jeffrey Borenstein M.D. August 2020. www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination. Accessed March 1st, 2021.
Aster, Ari. “Midsommar.” 2019. A24
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Learn About Mental Health.” 2018. CDC.gov, 26 Jan. 2018. www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm. Accessed March 3rd, 2021.