Column: Let’s all agree to stop ‘stigmatizing’ mental health

With Suicide Awareness Month coming to an end, comments regarding mental health have been all over the media. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24.

Some argue that suicide is done as an act of selfishness, or a cry for attention — I argue it’s a consequence for lack of treatment. Not only is access to mental healthcare hard to receive, a lot of people feel embarrassed to ask for help.

While one in five American adults experience mental illness in a given year (NAMI), only 25 percent of those adults believe that people are caring and sympathetic towards others living with mental illnesses, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Is there a stigma towards mental health? Sure. It’d be hard to argue that there’s not. But, it’s also more than just a stigma. Stigma, which is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person,” is far too modest. It is a complete discrimination by every meaning of the word. It is the unjust treatment of people that are “different.”

Discriminating against the mental ill has been going on since the 19th century, when psychiatric institutions began alienating their patients as treatment. People were placed in these psychiatric institutions for behaving in a way that society didn’t agree with. This history laid the blueprint for a lot of horror films and shows — leading into an even more stigmatized society today.

Movies or shows based on insane asylums or psychiatric institutions (American Horror Story) show clichés of “therapy” that are used in order to both entertain — and scare — their viewers. We see treatment with sedation, straitjackets, medication, alienation and a lot of times electrotherapy and other torturous ways.

Movies aren’t real life, right? Right. Mostly everyone can agree that movies are here for our entertainment purposes — and that’s all. But, when people who aren’t exposed to mental illness watch these movies, whether it subconsciously or consciously, these perceptions can carry over to their real life perceptions. It portrays mental illness and therapy in a way that is wrong and scary — and with those perceptions in mind, who WANTS to admit that they have a mental illness when it’s a phrase directly correlated to fear in others’ minds?

It’s led to society, possibly inadvertently, discriminating against those who are mentally ill. We’re driven by fear from what we’ve been exposed to on both the media and multiple mediums of entertainment.

Society as a whole has become entirely too comfortable using words and phrases that desensitizes the rest of the world to mental illness. “I’m so OCD,” says the perfectionist fixing something. “I’m having severe anxiety over this test tomorrow,” says the college student. “I’m so depressed,” says the middle-schooler after breaking up with her boyfriend.

Mental illnesses aren’t adjectives. OCD is the person who feels as if they can’t normally function in society because of intrusive violent or sexual thoughts or other unwanted thoughts. Anxiety is the person who feels like they’re being attacked, often times by their own mind, with no escape. Depression is the person who doesn’t want to wake up in the morning because they feel that their life is a nightmare.

Making these illnesses seem less than they are ultimately makes it harder for people to be compassionate and understanding towards the illnesses. Mental illnesses should be treated like any other illness — mental illness is a physical illness. Saying that is not true is damaging, offensive and incorrect.

Imagine if we treated physical illness like mental illness. “Have you ever tried … not having arthritis?” “Chemotherapy? Oh, I don’t believe in putting chemicals in my body.” “I don’t believe diabetes is real. It’s all your frame of mind.” “The flu? Believe me, I know how you feel, I had a cold once.”

I have struggled with mental illness my entire life, in many different forms. I have texted my mom late hours of the night saying “I wish I wasn’t so crazy,” or “I can’t get these thoughts out of my head,” or “I know it’s irrational, but I still need to talk to you.” I have been on and off anxiety and depression medications since I was fourteen, trying to find the right one.

Finally, at 21-years-old, I have begun to find ways to cope daily with mental illness. It has taken me more than seven years after being diagnosed to find ways to kind-of cope. I had to finally accept that I was more than my illness — that I wasn’t JUST a crazy person, that I wasn’t psycho, that I wasn’t over-reacting, that I wasn’t being dumb.

In retrospect, it’s sad I ever had to think any of those things. It’s sad me being “crazy” became a joke. But, that is all due to the stigma on mental health that I tried to address today. We, as a society, need to show mental illnesses in their true form, for what they are, and educate everyone on the symptoms and treatment for having them.

Take the Stigmafree Pledge by going to The Stigmafree Pledge is changing the way the world sees mental health. By taking it, you pledge to learn about mental health issues, see the person and not the illness and take action on mental health issues.

Karima Neghmouche can be contacted at [email protected].