For people like me, who face debilitating mental health challenges, it can be very hard to address and discuss issues surrounding mental health. There’s a lot of social stigma and casual, tacit discrimination in our everyday actions and speech. I can tell you from extensive personal experience that this stigma not only makes it hard to start a conversation about mental health, but it also makes it nearly impossible to have a conversation about mental health.
When you’re asked “how are you?” and you respond with an honest answer, it makes people uncomfortable and chances are that the conversation is likely to be anxiously diverted to another topic very quickly. What’s worse is that the lack of communication about mental health issues and challenges that this creates are often seen as an unwillingness on the part of the sufferer to tell others what’s happening, which is very often not the case—at least in my experience; it’s more likely that whomever I try to talk to doesn’t really want to listen. These kinds of roadblocks can eliminate the lifelines we need, even amongst well meaning and loving friends. Given enough of these experiences, it’s easier and less damaging in the short term to just stay silent. And thus the stigma grows.
A lot of this discomfort also stems from our cultural history around mental health and treatment for disorders. We all have a not-so-rosey image that pops to mind when we see/hear the word “asylum.” It’s depicted in popular culture, too, as a dark and frightening place—just think of Arkham Asylum from Batman—but it’s also a very real part of the history of mental health treatment. Thankfully the dark era of insane asylums has passed us by for the most part, but today’s solutions aren’t much better.
In fact, a big part of today’s “solutions” tends to be incarceration. According to NAMI, a frightening 15% of men and 30% of women in jail suffer from mental illnesses and disorders. And this isn’t a new development. In 2014, PBS Newshour did a story on these statistics. And just last year, Newt Gingrich—yes, that Newt Gingrich—and Van Jones penned a story together for CNN’s Opinion section. We know the system is broken and we know that access to mental health care is abysmal. So what are we doing to fix it?
The Affordable Care Act has helped, but there has to be more action taken to address these issues. And that action can start today, with you. If your friends or loved ones open up to you about their struggles, illness, or disorders please listen. Take the time to hear them and tell them you support them no matter what, don’t change the subject and don’t invalidate their challenges by dismissing or minimizing them. “Get over it” and “don’t think that way” aren’t helpful. Don’t use pejoratives like “retarded” to describe people or opinions you don’t like, don’t feed internet memes like “triggered!“, and don’t ask us to try harder.
We are trying.