The Unnecessary Stigma of Mental Illness

I was in my sophomore year of high school, visiting Chicago for the first time with my family. Soon after we boarded the train, a large woman swaggered over, yelling so aggressively that spit flew from her mouth. She focused on a man sitting alone and insulted him with words that I wouldn’t repeat here—even if The Heights allowed me to. The victim just stared straight ahead, obviously angry, but ignoring the woman as best he could to avoid trouble. And then the subway stopped, and we all went our separate ways.

For me, that incident serves as a snapshot, a personification of mental illness at its worst. Since then, I’ve run into numerous other individuals suffering from a variety of other mental and emotional pains—depression, eating disorders, anxiety, trauma, and abuse, to name a few. Judging by common reactions toward and treatment of these problems, I sometimes wonder what image society as a whole has of mental illness. I fear that too often we paint it in extremes. That lady, nearly frothing at the mouth in uncontrollable rage, is mental illness as we understand and fear it—and we remain sitting on the train, watching a single mind’s chaos unfurl.

But what we fail to realize is that, more often than not, our understanding is exaggerated unto falsity. We turn passive in fear and stigmatize something that affects all of us in manifold ways, thereby granting it power over us.

The greatest problem with our perception of mental illness is that we forget that we’re all a little unbalanced and illogical. We fail to realize that when these symptoms grow into a disorder or illness, we can’t suddenly lose our humanity. Yet we fear being characterized as the disorder, and as a result we often cover the more riddling parts of ourselves. The senior struggling with an eating disorder, the optimist secretly burdened with anxiety, the friend who is a borderline alcoholic—they’re all in the Boston College community, appearing at unexpected moments and hiding behind locked doors. And when we’re not “those people,” we fear discussing them, because we associate mental illness with the lady frothing at the mouth. We don’t like to think that we, so similar to these suffering students, could in turn be associated with her.

The funny thing about the stigma is that it often reveals itself quietly. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone teased for being depressed or suffering from an eating disorder—BC students (as far as I’ve seen) are pretty upright people. We know better than to bully each other. But what we will do is deny, deny, deny.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I heard someone say to a friend who tried to explain her mental illness. “I mean, I support you if you are, but that just doesn’t sound like you.”

It’s like we strip off our masks for a moment and those who see gently slide them back on for us. “Let’s not make this an issue,” they seem to say. “Let’s forget that this happened.” In this way, we protect our friends and ourselves. We view mental illness as an extreme—it’s not something that happens to this friend or that kid in class. We’re all fine.  Because otherwise, these BC students become something separate from the community.

In allowing ourselves to view mental illness within such extremes, we also jump to the extremes of denial and silence. Inevitably, however, these issues cannot remain forever under the surface—they’re simply too complicated and emotional—and we suddenly find ourselves confessing our pains like secret sins. I’ve seen this happen in particular at some retreats, where an attempt to create community results in an overwhelming number of people sobbing, gasping as they tell their stories to people they met the night before.

I worry that at times these “quick fixes” and “retreat highs” serve as sugar pills for a society fearful of taking proper medicine: they encourage a delusion of security and health, while avoiding those issues that endanger both. We confess our sorrows, and then pronounce ourselves cured and satiated.

We don’t have to “confess” anything—our pains shouldn’t be translated as shame. Simple as it sounds, we should treat our pains as pains. The way I see it, an arm can be broken any number of ways—by one’s own fault, by the fault of another, or by variations of other causes and consequences—but the fact remains that there’s a broken arm that needs to be fixed. The fact remains that someone is suffering the pain of that broken bone. If we are a society that knows its values, then we’ll take the whole process seriously: even after the bone has set and the cast comes off, we’ll continue to check in. We’ll recognize that sometimes healed bones can ache with the coming of rain.

People are enigmatic creatures, always changing. Therefore, it stands to reason that mental illness is equally—if not more—complex. So let’s let the doctors be doctors. Let’s assist those with broken arms and continue to look after each other, even when we appear completely healed, simply because we appreciate the importance of creating a supportive community.

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Senior Staff