Stigma, Stereotypes and Society

For some unthinkable reason I decided that taking summer classes would be a fabulous idea, and not at all burn out my already fragile psyche. Obviously this is another brilliant move I am going to blame on sleep deprivation, and prolonged Frosted Flakes consumption. I am currently cursing myself, and forcing my Amazon Echo to tell me once a day: “You make bad life choices Hannah” in her creepy robot overlord voice. In other news though, one of my classes has focused heavily on mental illness thus far (totally not triggering me and making me view myself as a case study, right?) and it made me question the persistent haze of stigma that surrounds mental illness.

How many times in our lives have we heard someone refer to an individual who is moody as bipolar? When someone is having bouts of irrationality, have you heard someone call that individual a schizo? When we feel insecure about our accomplishments, how many times have we referred to ourselves as having imposter syndrome, without a mental health professional ever suggesting this as a remote possibility? When we witness an individual doing something a tad fucked up, how many of us has referred to that person as a sociopath, insinuating they must have antisocial personality disorder? When a mass shooting happens in the United States how many news outlets start streaming coverage about the “mentally ill” shooter? The answer in my world, for each of these questions, is too many times.

The consistent devaluation, and unintentional demeaning of mental illnesses, triggers a society that will never empathizes with those of us who suffer from neurotransmitters misfiring in our brains. Depression is the 9th leading cause of disability in the United States, but some estimate that the actual figures should place it in 2nd place. The cause for such a wide gap is underdiagnosing; people fear the label because of the stigma so instead being “stressed” is easier to digest. As someone who personally carries multiple titles from the DSM-V, I get it. I do not shout to the world what code my psychiatrist writes down in my chart after I ramble for thirty minutes. I say it is to protect my privacy, but the truth is I am afraid of being considered the stereotype.

So many times within my country once people know your diagnosis then you are “the chick with anxiety” or “that girl with depression”, let alone having people find out about the even more stigmatized diagnoses. Society wants to steal the identity of people with mental illnesses and replace them with blue stickers that say “Hi, my name is your coworker who has panic attacks”. There is the fear that people will trust you less if they know you take medication, or if they know the only way you keep it together is to attend weekly therapy sessions. Mental illness is misunderstood, and the more people flippantly throw around names of various mental illnesses, the worse it becomes. Mental health disorders are stuck in quicksand, every time the media portrays school shooters as mentally sick instead of reforming gun laws, it places the blame on mental illness. Every time we call our cranky professors bipolar, it hurts those with bipolar disorder. When we casually joke about having imposter syndrome, it appropriates the title without suffering from the pain those with the disorder actually feel.

Mental illness is stigmatized. There is no circumventing this reality. But with every stereotype that exists we can start altering how it is treated. Instead of looking at individuals as stereotypes, we can understand a mental illness is simply a piece of who they are. Avoid minimizing it, while additionally making the conscious choice to not demonize it or associate a legitimate disorder with being “crazy”. Imagine how many more people could receive help, which increases their quality of life, if they viewed mental illness like any other disease. What would the world look like if getting help was considered an act of bravery, instead of people “just needing to snap out of it”. The human race as a whole desperately needs to do better with educating people. We need for mental health to be shown to us outside of anti-depressant commercials with pitiful cartoons. We need to be able to talk about therapy, talk about taking medication and let those anguishing with suicidal ideation know they are loved and are never alone.

My life would be the exact opposite of a mostly happy home, with a usually happy wife and mom, if I did not take mood stabilizers. I tried not going to therapy, and I completely lost my shit. Yet, when I began to treat my anxiety and complex trauma as only a piece of me, instead of a secret to throw into the deepest crevices of my mind, things got better. When I initiated the conversation with others, and let myself actually take an inventory of my feelings, instead of fearing them, life was easier. Today my life is crazy. Alexa, who will probably iRobot my house one day, might remind me I make bad decisions, but at least I make decisions. I might not blog as much as I want, or clean as much as I should, but I get to be present in my life instead of my emotions consuming me. Today I proudly wear a name tag which reads “Hi, my name is Hannah and I am a student of Public Health, mother to a wildling, wife of a Punjabi, book junkie and scatterbrained blogger, who also happens to have a mental illness.” I refuse to let the last piece define me.