She was the freak. The psycho. The crazy person. Jen Smith was no longer the pretty cheerleader, the straight-A student, nor the sweet southern bell of high school. Her years spent crafting a model reputation of being the “good” girl were simply forgotten as soon as she returned.
Jen went through a bad break-up her junior year—and I mean bad. So bad that it sent her into a black hole of depression, giving her parents no other option than to send her to a depression treatment center and rehab. She was no longer herself, now unable to perform the necessary duties that led to her once-coveted reputation.
When she returned to school after a month in the facility, whispers surrounded her name. “What? She’s back? Where did she go? She just went crazy.” The ignorance, intolerance, and insensitivity surrounding her homecoming was generated by her peers, and by people whom she once considered her friends.
I was still in middle school while all of this was happening to Jen, so I was deaf to these rumors and whispers. I didn’t know Jen, or what mental illnesses were—I, along with my peers, dismissed her hardship and personal suffering, believing that she was overdramatic. I dismissed the concept of mental illness altogether. It’s something that’s just all in your head—eventually you’ll get over it.
I assumed all of these things until I saw the destruction that the stigma surrounding mental illness caused my friend, Frank. He was attending college away from home when two mental illnesses, depression and bipolar disease, took hold of his life.
Frank began isolating himself from his friends, his family, and society as a whole. He stopped going to school, and instead sought refuge in drugs to cure the earthquakes and tornadoes wreaking havoc in his mind. His peers began to make fun of his rash behavior and hermit-like lifestyle. He couldn’t walk around town without hearing whispers and snickers, or seeing smirks and faces of disgust. Even his teachers, people who are supposed to have students’ interests in mind, disregarded him entirely, and simply wanted him out of their classes. With no one providing direct support and understanding, Frank submerged further into his depression. It wasn’t until the night he attempted suicide that people realized just how serious his illnesses were.
Where did stigma surrounding mental illnesses come from?
Mental illnesses arise from chemical imbalances in the brain. Like cancer, the people afflicted have no control over whether they get the disease. Shame doesn’t surround cancer, so shame has no place affecting those who have mental illnesses. But mental illness is something that people still do not understand, and this lack of understanding drives individuals to simply turn their backs.
Although a stigma still exists around mental illnesses, it is slowly being eliminated. With campus organizations such as To Write Love on Her Arms, “[existing] to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery,” according to the organization’s statement on its website, and efforts by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College to chip away at this stigma, students are encouraged to talk about these issues. These groups believe that increasing discourse concerning mental health will promote an environment of openness and support for individuals quietly suffering.
Progress is being made. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “adults ages 18-34 are more likely to consider it a sign of strength to see a mental health professional, compared with older generations, and also are more likely to believe that suicide can always or more often be prevented.” By talking about not only depression, but also anxiety and panic disorders, individuals can learn about warning signs and measures to seek help.
We are chipping away at the stigma. It still exists, and probably always will to a degree, but by being informed of the very real and catastrophic effects of mental illnesses, we have the tools to prevent them from becoming fatal. It’s on us to continue this discourse.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic