It’s OK not to be OK: lifting the stigma on mental health

Walking into the classroom, Laura Jackson’s chest tightens. She feels like a million eyes are on her, and she wishes she could turn around and run out. Friends wonder why Jackson is reluctant to follow through with plans. If they knew the reason, maybe they would be scared of her condition. It’s not easy to uphold an independent college lifestyle when being surrounded by people leads to feeling even more alone.

Jackson, a junior sociology major, struggles with mental health every day, she said. But recently, she’s noticed a major shift in the environment not only at Chapman but in the U.S. as a whole. It seems to her that the stigma surrounding mental health is lifting. She observes that more people who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety feel comfortable speaking out about their condition.

Carly Blau, a junior integrated educational studies major, said she struggles with depression and anxiety and has experienced this stigma firsthand.

“Teachers in the past have seen my condition as excuses. They’d want me to ‘suck it up.’ I remember growing up and hearing that a lot,” she said.

Blau, too, agrees that the stigma is lifting.

“I think mental health is now becoming more normalized. Awareness is being brought out into the popular sphere through campus resources and mass media,” Blau said.

Veston Rowe, an associate professor of public relations and advertising at Chapman, who suffers from situational depression, said that with more exposure to mental health issues like depression, young adults will feel comfortable being open about their struggles.

“The curtain’s been pulled back on this issue,” Rowe said. “There is more empathy and people are talking about (mental health) more. That’s what we need to do to understand it.”

Mental illness was believed to be proof of demonic possession during the Middle Ages, according to a 2009 Psychological Medicine article, published by Cambridge University – and that belief continues today in certain Pentecostal sects. Thanks to education, most Americans are more sophisticated now. They understand that a mental illness is a disease of the brain just as pneumonia or diabetes are diseases of the body. Perhaps that’s because there are few American families without a depressed parent or child or a paranoid relative somewhere in the family tree. In fact, 18.5 percent of adult Americans will suffer a mental illness in a given year.

Open discussion and education have not helped to stem the body count of deaths from depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.

The rate of young women ages 15 to 19 committing suicide reached a 40-year high in 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Suicide rates of girls in the same age group doubled between 2007 and 2015. While males have historically lower depression and suicide rates, the study noted a 31 percent increase in suicide among young in the same time period.

On a smaller scale, 62 percent of the students who sought help from the Chapman counseling services in 2016 identified depression as their reason for pursuing counseling. About 20 percent of these students have considered suicide, according to information provided by Chapman’s Student Psychological Counseling Services.

Blau believes social media is in part to blame for this recent increase in numbers.

“I definitely think (social media) causes self-doubt and anxiety, and makes you compare yourself to others. Especially when we have a fear of missing out and thinking, ‘They’re having such a great time, why am I not?’” Blau said.

Despite the number of young adults who suffer from depression, the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses is what turns people away from seeking help, Jackson said.

“It took me a while before I was able to reach out to a therapist to help me,” Jackson said. “I felt like if the people I knew found out about it, that they would judge me or think I was crazy. I even know others who have opened up to me and said they’ve felt the exact same way. We just feel weakened by our own disorders.”

Chapman’s chapter of Active Minds works to end the stigma against mental illness. Photo courtesy Colette Grubman.

People like Jackson serve as inspiration for campus organizations like Active Minds, which aims to eliminate mental health stigmas. Students involved with Active Minds hope to create more exposure for mental illness through on-campus events so that young adults will feel better about themselves and seek help. President of Chapman’s chapter of Active Minds, junior English major Colette Grubman, describes the organization to be “a great way to help spread the word and be a part of the solution and not the problem.”

Grubman, too, has struggled with anxiety and depression.

“You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. A lot of people go through it. If you’re open and honest about it, you can really help other people who you might not even know are struggling,” she said.

Junior Mitchell Rosenberg, president of student government, and his vice president, Sarah Tabsh, agree that the 60 students on the waitlist for Chapman’s Student Psychological Services is a sign that the university should strive for better wellness resources.

Some question the role of traditional media, too, in the rise of depression and suicide. Backlash on social media came after the release of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The show, based on a 2007 novel of the same title, depicted a young depressed woman, who records tapes of 13 reasons why she decided to kill herself. The show received negative feedback from people who believed the graphic scenes depicting suicide and rape could prompt already depressed people to commit suicide.

“If someone who’s younger is watching (“13 Reasons Why”) and doesn’t have someone who can answer their questions, it can be difficult to gain understanding from the series,” Grubman said.

Blau appreciates the conversation that the media began about mental health.

“That is what’s important — the debate that people are having now. You never know how you are affecting someone and entertainment media can teach people about these issues,” she said.

Mental health should be treated more similarly to how people view physical injuries, said junior peace studies major Jazzie Newton.

“If you are hurt physically, you go to the doctor. If you are hurt mentally, you go to a counselor. They are both professionals that help you with issues in your life and it is not weak on either side to go to them,” Newton said.

Blau hopes to become a teacher and she aims to inspire kids to speak out about their mental health.

“The more people hide, the more that people won’t speak out. Sharing your story can greatly help someone else. That’s why I share mine,” she said.

Jackson hopes to be a beacon of hope for others struggling like she did.

“I want to serve as an example. I want to help people find a voice they didn’t know they had, speak up, and seek help,” Jackson said. “People will soon know that no harm can come from sharing your story.”

1 Comment

  • —-Lifting the stigma on mental health


    Whenever that term appears, I want a fuller exposition. It is a cover word, what it hides deserves far more exposure.

    As rape/stigma it dominated our thinking for many generations. Exposing the realities it hid changed how we look at sexual assault.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

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