The Stigma Against Mental Illness #2

I chose this topic for my second blog post because it is something I personally struggle with, but I have not really heard it be brought up in class. We mainly talk about things you can physically observe such as race, sex, physical illness/disability, or personal beliefs such as religion. One thing I have not heard be brought up or discussed is mental illness, something you cannot necessarily see, but is very real. To start, please watch this powerful TED talk by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman.

My Role:

I started going to therapy when I was a senior in high school. Looking back, I probably should have tried to get help sooner, but at the time my symptoms had gotten out of control. My now husband, then boyfriend, and I had just started doing long distance when he went to college. Having anxiety/OCD/depression, this was too much for me and I could barely execute daily tasks. I had developed separation anxiety from my mom after he left, and I would literally cry every time I was alone without her outside of school. It was scary and I felt out of control. When I started going to therapy, my friends made a lot of comments about how I was always happy and didn’t need to go to therapy. My friend’s parents would say “you are just a kid, you don’t have anything to be anxious about, I have to worry about x, y, and z.” This made me feel very ashamed and I was afraid to share this part of my life with others. Fast forward to when I first got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I started taking medication, only it didn’t help, it got worse. I had no feelings anymore, I started gaining weight, and I was becoming more depressed. Once I started the medication, I was required to take it for at least 6 months by the doctor. After about a year I decided it was making me feel worse. The doctor wrote on a prescription how to ween off as follows: 2 days take 1 pill, 2 days take ½ pill, stop 😊. There was nothing happy about stopping, because now my symptoms were back, along with painful withdrawal side-effects. Once the withdrawal symptoms ended, I thought, “you know what, I don’t have anything to worry about so I’m going to stop therapy and not try another medication”…Now I am in college. I have my first exam, and I studied so much. I was a little nervous, but I studied and I knew the material. When I opened my test my mind when blank, I started panicking, I felt like I was going to throw up and I could not calm down. I finished as much of the test as I could and then I ran to the bathroom. This happened to me during every test in that class. I would cry every time I knew I had a test coming up to the point of barely making it to the test. I finally got the nerve to tell my advisor about the struggles I was having and he said, “everyone has anxiety and depression these days.” This made me feel so silly and belittled that I didn’t bring it up with him again for almost 4 years. Recently, I started taking my mental health more seriously because my symptoms have gotten more serious. It not only makes me feel crazy, but it makes me act crazy. When I get in an anxious spell, I will stay up until 3 or 4 am cleaning, working, or doing whatever I need to do to keep my mind occupied. On the contrary, when I experience a depression spell, I will lay in bed for 2-3 days without eating, drinking, or talking to anyone. When my OCD is really bad, I will drive from Christiansburg to my lab on campus at midnight just to make sure I turned a microscope off. I will cancel plans almost every time I have them, and make up any excuse I can think of. Yet, people who don’t know this about me just think I am a happy, hardworking student who gets a little stressed sometimes. The stigma against mental illness is so harmful because people who suffer are afraid to talk about it in fear of being ridiculed, dismissed, or feared. The doctor in the TED talk spoke so graciously about this topic and I loved his professional advice to society about how harmful stigma can be. I think people need to understand that people can be anxious, but that doesn’t mean they have anxiety, people can be sad/depressed, but that doesn’t mean they have clinical depression, and people can be a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean they have OCD. What you see on the outside may be a good representation, but in my experience what I portray vs. what I think/feel/struggle with is polar opposite.

Formal Theory/Scholarship

There are many resources for addressing the stigma against mental illness, including this page from the mayo clinic (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477). This page discusses the stigma, as well as solutions and what people with mental illness should do to get help and cope with stigma. We talk about discrimination in class a lot, but we have not covered stigma specifically. I think the theories we have learned so far in class such as the bias period and more recently microaggression apply to the stigma against mental illness. I really hope people do not purposefully say/do things to hurt or lessen someone with a mental illness, but it is definitely a huge part of society that may fall on the bottom of the bias pyramid. Additionally, microaggressions often occur when people with mental illness express it as a problem, such as saying things like everyone gets stressed. I think this is because people do not understand, which leads into my next section.

Missing components

Education and, sadly, experience are two components that are missing. I say education because people are afraid of mental illness and often pretend it doesn’t exist besides the more extreme disorders such as schizophrenia. Mental illness seems to be correlated with being crazy and dangerous. I say experience because it is very hard to understand the extremity of mental illness without either having a mental illness or being very close with someone who does (and will trust you to let them see what it is like). Even my husband who lives with me and see’s me having these struggles still has a hard time understanding. And part of that is because although I let him experience a lot of it with me, I am still shameful of it and try to hide as much as possible when I have enough willpower. I honestly don’t even fully open up to my therapist. She is there to listen to me, but I still feel uncomfortable and ashamed. I think the only solution to end the stigma is to create an environment in which struggling individuals feel comfortable sharing and professionals in the field can speak and be heard and taken seriously.

Implications

The implication that the stigma has on society is huge. People feel so alone, scared, and out of control that they isolate themselves and sometimes even commit suicide. Feeling uncomfortable, even in your closest relations causes strain at times with the other person. Usually, when someone commits suicide or does something else extreme, people close to them say they are shocked, or they didn’t realize it was so bad but they knew the person was struggling. This is sad and it happens all the time. The only way to fix this is to be okay with hearing struggles and accepting them and wanting to help instead of ridicule. I think that a lot of school shootings and other tragic events like that could be prevented if mental illness was more normalized and recognized so outsiders could pick up on key behaviors that might indicate a mental illness is happening. The implication a solution would have is that people suffering could feel comfortable seeking help and talking about what is happening and I think that would be the best thing for everyone. Another implication may be that people suffering from mental illness can be properly diagnosed and treated for other physical illnesses. I often experience a lot of my symptoms be written off by doctors as a symptom of my mental illness. But I know my body and I know when something feels wrong, not the doctor. I think if doctors took symptoms seriously instead of accounting everything to mental illness, the mental illness itself may be more treatable with a healthy body.

7 Replies to “The Stigma Against Mental Illness #2”

  1. I am so glad you brought this topic up! I too have suffered with depression most of my life. Unfortunately, when I was a teen and even in college NO ONE talked about it which is very lonely! If I was feeling sad or going through a hard time people would just say but you look fine or it will pass/get better, or get out of the house and you’ll feel happier. But like you said, the truth was there was this constant invisible storm cloud following me everywhere I went that I just hid from people because of the stigma associated with it. There were many times I felt suicidal but was always more afraid I’d fail at it and then feel even worse. Shortly after I got married my depression started spiraling out of control so bad that one night I finally attempted suicide. I later woke up realizing I had failed and started crying as I told my husband what I had done. Looking back I had been begging people to help me for weeks leading up to that but no one recognized the signs. My husband was furious with me (the reaction I wanted to avoid) and immediately took me to the hospital where I stayed for 2 weeks in intensive treatment. The reaction from my parents was just as bad as they were like “why would you do something so stupid?” and then immediately acted like it never happened. I was put on medication and like you, also felt nothing which is even worse than feeling sad in my opinion! I went through a lot of therapy that year and I while I still struggle from time to time, I feel in control of it more now than I did before. I’m so glad that over time the stigma, while still there, is not nearly as quiet as it was nearly 20 years ago. I work with a lot of graduate students which as many studies have shown, have a high likelihood of mental health issues.
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis
    I’m glad that I went through what I did because I feel I’m able to recognize better and be more empathetic when I see a student struggling with mental health. I have walked a fair amount of students to Cook Counseling and helped them initiate the help they need. I also remind them they are NOT alone and that there is nothing to be ashamed of because you go to a doctor if you have the flu so going to the doctor for depression is not any different since you need help with your brain as well as the rest of your body. Mental health is definitely something I take seriously now not only at work but also at home. Now that I’m a mom, I am much more proactive when it comes to my children’s mental health than my parents ever were. Two years ago I recognized that my oldest needed help (though my husband was not on board) and I got her into therapy. She was worried so much about what others thought if they knew but now she realizes that many of her friends also go to therapy and it’s not that big of a deal. I think the more people talk about it thought the less that the stigma can exist because people will realize they are not alone and do not have to suffer alone. Help is out there and I think with encouragement from doctors that will help too! How many times do you go to a doctor for a cold and they also ask you how you are mentally doing while there? Almost never! I also think that employers and universities need to do better about having mental health professionals available! While I know VT is working on it, it’s not acceptable for a student to wait 3 weeks to get an appointment at Cook Counseling! A 3 week wait can mean life or death in some situations.

  2. I hear you, and I’m thankful you shared. Sharing these experiences is not easy and you should be proud of what you’ve gone through and the progress you’ve made. You should be excited about the progress you will continue to make! I started therapy at a younger age because my mother and I went through what she thought was a great deal of emotional stress when I was about 11 years old. I’m glad she had the foresight to put me into it because it gave me the tools I needed to combat situations later. I by no means escaped anxiety and depression but I can at least see it coming, happening and can help mitigate some situations for myself. This all took place during the time when therapy was just beginning to be covered by insurance, psychologists and psychiatrists were gaining traction in the medical community and pharmaceutical companies were giving out pills like they were going out of style. I was put on every kind of anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication they could put you on and I’m pretty sure I was part of that “don’t give these to teenagers or they’ll try and kill themselves” discovery in the early 2000’s. Since we know so little about the human brain, it’s like everything else we know little about, we’re afraid of it when it acts up and we make fun of it or want to keep away from it. That’s where your stigma is created from. I’ve been called crazy so many times it doesn’t even feel like an insult anymore, it’s like a badge of honor and a little crown I wear. That’s disgusting to write down, but it’s true. I take my little deficit that other people see and decide “whatever, it just makes me a little more caring, have a heightened emotional state and you’re just jealous you’re dead inside!” Luckily, my problem is fairly mild and manageable. I’m hoping the education and research will continue to get a better handle on how to manage the more severe cases so people can go on to live normal lives and not have to continue to live with these stigmas and discriminations.

  3. Blog response #4
    Very provoking post! I want to assure you that I see much more awareness about mental illness today than 20 years ago. I hear you concern, and I understand how lonely and difficult a mental health’s journey can be. Although mental illness is more openly discuss now, I think the degree of mental illness is where we still have not come to a consensus. There is a tendency to look at anxiety, depression and OCD as less important. Also, I believe that because we live in a world where constant pressures have become part of our lives, we tend to overlook symptoms that may indicate we need to consult a professional. I was not very familiar with anxiety, depression and OCD until one day I had trouble getting out of bed. This was so foreign to me, that my first reaction was that there was something seriously wrong with me. Immediately I made an appointment with a doctor who confirmed I was suffering from seasonal depression. She prescribed a light medication and intense light therapy. After about two months, I was okay. Now, I pay close attention to winter and Fall when there is not much sun and natural light. I was raised in one of the driest desserts in the world so natural light and sunshine was always part of my environment. Living in Virginia where we have all four season and sometimes, we do not see sunlight for weeks caused me to have a Vitamin D deficiency which in turn contributed to a seasonal depression and compared to what you described in your blog is not as serious. My point is that it made me more aware about my mental health and I am also less judgmental when I hear other people struggle with similar issues.
    There are few studies done with college students and how some professors tend to dismiss those students that bring these issues up to their attention. The same studies state that students, most of the time, are not asking for special concessions. They just want to be heard and they want to know they are being supported. I got to experience how this support does not work well in some cases and it was not even a mental illness concern. Two semesters ago I was having some medical problems and two doctors gave me letters to present to VTech (no individual names given) and I was treated as if I were trying to get away with “something.” The reason I presented the medical certificates was they were already aware of my medical problems if my issues got worse. I never wanted anything, I never asked for anything else.
    I am well aware how anxiety can affect your performance. Some mental illness issues can be corrected with medication and others need lifelong treatments. My suggestion is that you have to try to work moving forward in those instances, particularly while in school, even if the support is not there. Get help before it gets worse.

  4. Blog #2, Comment #3

    First of all, thank you for being so open in your blog post. It takes courage to speak about your own struggles, so I commend you for that!

    I am frustrated with adults like your friend’s parents who essentially said we are just kids so we have nothing to worry about or that we do not know what it is like to deal with x, y, and z. Sometimes I would vent to my parents and this would be their exact reaction. I usually brush it off when they react like this because I am nearly certain college and graduate school today is vastly different than when they went to school. It is way more competitive now and it seems like the amount of workload and responsibilities has grown since they were in school. So moral of my story, do NOT be ashamed when parents or other people say that to you! The only time their opinion is valid is when they walk in your shoes, which is basically impossible because they aren’t in college or a grad program right now and nobody can be you. This goes into your missing components section, like you said, experience is a big factor going forward. Even though you may live with someone who sees these things happening, they truly will never understand until it happens to them and it is not like your husband or whoever can create a mental illness at the snap of a finger to understand how it feels. I understand that you can’t open up completely to anyone such as your therapist because of shame you feel. In my former years, I was forced by my parent to attend 2 or 3 therapist sessions, and like you, I felt so ashamed and disheartened that someone ‘like me’ had to go see a therapist that I was closed off and would not open up, just nodded my head and told them what they wanted to hear to make it end. I think it was because I was forced to go to a therapist against my will as I was a minor, and because of my unique situation that was something other than a mental illness that made my time at the therapist unproductive. If you are able and want to go on your own will to better yourself that is so great! And I would try to be as open as possible because that is truly their job and what they got their education and training in; to help others with their struggles so that you don’t have to keep carrying this burden yourself. You know I am always here if you need someone to talk to or hang out with 😊

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story and educating us about mental illness. I wish I was more informed about mental illness during my undergraduate studies, I would have been more helpful in providing support to my friends who struggled from mental illness. During my undergrad, I had a friend who was doing so well academically and very outgoing in his freshman and sophomore years of college. By the third year, he suddenly changed. He withdrew from everyone and isolated himself most times. He also started performing poorly academically. Those of us who knew him in his first and second year in college knew something was obviously wrong. I knew he had mental illness but did not know much to provide him with the help he needed. My university, like many institutions in developing countries, did not have a support program or the resources to support those struggling with mental illness then. My friend had to deal with this mostly by himself with some support from family and friends. His family understood something was wrong with him, they were willing to provide the best help for him, but they did not know how to support him. They thought he was having a “spiritual problem” and would need some prayers to cure his problem rather than seeking a medical help for him. His mental illness affected him so much that his academic work suffered. He spent an extra two year before he managed to graduate from college. I am glad that there is now increasing awareness about mental illness. My friend’s condition would have been better if there was awareness about his condition and institutional support to help him when he needed it most.

  6. Blog #2, Comment #1
    Thank you for sharing this important topic with us. I appreciate your brave to talk about your situation. Mental illness is a health condition affects thinking, feeling, emotions, or behavior. Actually, we have psychological treatments for long years, but I think there are many barriers to provide quality care that people with mental illness needs. According to World health organization report, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. All of us sometimes feel depressed without any serious scientific reasons behind it, it could be attributed to different stressful life events. I agree with you the challenge associated with mental illness is stigma and cultural attitudes toward mental illness. In my country, many years ago there are some people believe that mental illness associated with demonic or spiritual touch as Tosin mentioned. Also, they believe patients should go to religious person for treatments such as (praying, reciting Quran, pouring specific water, etc.). Not all of these people are true Muslim, they were lying and taking money without any logical reason. I think as Muslim we can recite Quran anytime anywhere, without going to someone to do it. However, these believes began to change and open the door to psychological disorders clinics. I appreciate having some organizations such as World Health Organization that is non-profit organizations try to make people recognize that psychological issues are nothing to be ashamed of. Hopefully, educators be aware about students’ mental health and have enough knowledge to understand students with mental illness especially because the students’ mental health has influence on students’ learning, performance, and achievement. Consequently, they can empower students with knowledge, and encourage dialogue, confirm students that they are not alone and they will get the help they need.

  7. Kayla, First: You are absolutely NOT alone and you are NOT crazy. Second, you are so brave. To simply share this aspect of your life and be this open about your mental health takes a lot of courage. You should be proud. If you are not being fully open and honest with your therapist, then you should start. Take baby steps. Be a little more open about your struggles and your person every time you meet. I was in therapy for several years. It was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. It was so helpful. She was the one person I could be completely honest and vulnerable with without feeling judged in the least. While I do not carry all of the struggles you do, I do have a small sense of understanding. While I have my own struggles with anxiety and body disorders, I have a sister with bipolar disorder and it has been such a challenge trying to help her over the years. She is up then down. I never know which version of her I’m going to get and as her sister who loves her I worry so much. I only want what’s best for her and I do wish she would talk to someone and get the help she needs. There’s nothing wrong with receiving help. And I’m sure your husband, while he may not fully understand, I bet he wants what’s best for you. Thank you for writing on this topic. This is an issue I hold close to my heart and do not take lightly. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel small for who you are and all that you carry. And if someone’s getting to you, then come tell me and I’ll come kick some butt!

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