One of the very first things I want to address on this blog is the stigma surrounding mental health. If any of you have done any kind of research about mental health, you have probably come across talk of “stigma” and how it’s bad and how it is hurting the mental health community. But what does stigma even mean?
Google will tell you that stigma is defined as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
Essentially, it is the negative feelings we have about a subject or a person because we see the subject or person as “bad” or “lesser” in society. Stigma is essentially a stereotype to the extreme.
There are lots of ways stigma harms the mental health community. There are a bunch of different mental illnesses, each associated with a certain stereotype. I watched a TED Talk about this not too long ago and the man giving the talk said that a good way to show stigma is to picture yourself in a situation where you are supposed to be going to a party for your boss, but you can’t come because you are sick. Would you rather say that you fell and hurt yourself, or that you were really depressed and couldn’t get out of bed that day? If you chose the former, then you, whether you know it or not, have fallen into the “stigmatizing mental illness” category. It’s not specifically just your fault, but society has made mental health and mental illness out to be a no-no, hush-hush subject. We don’t treat it equal to physical illness….even though it is.
Still don’t believe me? Well think about this. Nobody tells a cancer patient to just not have cancer. Nobody tells someone with the flu to just try harder and they’ll feel better. Nobody questions when someone is physically ill in some way and most people are sympathetic to the sick person and just want them to get well. Yet, we don’t do this nearly the same for mental illnesses. People often see those with mental illnesses as just people looking for attention, or just wanting to get a day off of work. It’s like nobody believes them and that they are just as sick as the cancer patient, or have the flu, or just sick in general. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying those things are all easy or all equal in every way. I know specifically cancer is an awful disease and I am by no means trying to downplay it’s severity. I only intend to explain how mental illness is not treated the same as physical illness.
Another way people stigmatize mental illness is by trivializing illnesses by referring to them casually. For instance, when someone was sad about the end of a movie, you might commonly hear, “that made me depressed,” afterwards. Or if someone gets nervous before a test, they might claim they have anxiety, but being anxious does not equate having an anxiety disorder. Everyone experiences the emotion of anxiety, just like everyone experiences sadness, but experiencing anxiety does not make you have anxiety just like being sad does not mean you are depressed.
Of all of the casual remarks made about mental illness, though, the ones about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) make me the most upset. All of them make me upset, but I know the most about anxiety and OCD.
OCD is far different than it is made out to be. By that I mean when you make jokes about how color coding your planner makes you “OCD,” or how not all the objects in a group are facing the same way and that bothers you because you’re, “soooo OCD,” not only are you making light of a very, very real disease, but you’re also flat out wrong. Most people who make those jokes have no earthly idea what OCD is actually like. OCD is not equal to being an organized and productive human being. Stop equalizing it to a Type A personality!! OCD is far more complicated and a lot more debilitating than just that. In fact, if it was that simple, OCD would not be a disease.
OCD is having unwanted thoughts all the time, and having to do certain things a certain way and/or a certain number of times or you cannot function. It’s not being a neat person. I’m sure people with OCD would tell you they wish it was that simple. But no, it’s not. It literally interferes with your daily life. It causes huge disruptions to yourself and sometimes even those close to you. I will most likely get into much more detail on exactly what OCD is in another blog post, because it’s enough information to get it’s own post. Again, this is not to say the other jokes about mental illness don’t matter, I just am most familiar with OCD specifically.
Mental illness is running rampant in society today, as around 1 in 5 Americans have some kind of mental illness. That’s literally 20% of the population in the U.S.!! We are in the best era to learn about mental illness. Medicine and research on this subject is better than ever, yet we are still completely clueless to what 20% of the population deals with!! WHY are we still in this rut of ignorance where we don’t even bother trying to understand the illnesses and instead we run from them in fear, making those with illnesses feel even more misunderstood and alone?? Ignoring the problem, and especially making fun/light of the problem, is most definitely not going to fix the issue or help anyone struggling. People with mental illnesses are not crazy and the more they are treated as such and as lesser human beings, the worse it’s going to get for them. Especially as Christians, it is our job to create a welcoming and loving environment. How can we do that when we aren’t even willing to start seeing invisible illness as real illness? Just because we don’t fully understand something doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand some of it! We do it in school all the time! Why can’t we also do it for this??
What is it going to take for us to finally stop punishing people who are already hurt (and not at their own fault)? If 1 in 5 people have a mental illness, that means in a group of 25 people, 5 according to the statistic should have a mental illness. Most people know at least 25 people.
Don’t take this on surface level, take it on a personal level. It is very likely you know someone with a mental illness even if you are unaware of it. You don’t know who is unknowingly suffering, which is why it is important to watch what we say, and why we should always be kind.
Please, please, it is not hard to end the stigma if we all try. Try to refrain from mean jokes about mental illnesses, and remind those who do that it is not funny to joke about. It really isn’t that hard. Ending the stigma is the first step to being able to create a society where mental illness is not blamed on the victim and the victim is not bullied for what they cannot control. If I can make you remember anything about my blog, it would be this specific post. Always be kind, understanding, and welcoming to others, because if that was you, I’m sure you would want the same.