Gabriela Lanza is a junior media studies major.
Even though Mental Illness Awareness Week was the week of Oct. 4, we should continue to engage in dialogue about the impact of mental health in our lives, particularly because of how much our ongoing pandemic has exacerbated mental illness symptoms for many. While there continues to be a stigma around mental health, it shouldn’t be that way.
Anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders are major health concerns that we know exist but still might feel uncomfortable talking about. They can vary in severity and duration, but no matter how much we might want to think someone is just bummed or stressed out like the rest of us, actual chemical imbalances that affect brain chemistry worsen these surface-level symptoms. Mental health disorders are actually quite common; one in five Americans have one that others may or may not know about, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.
These disorders can be caused by genetics, life situations, environmental exposures before birth, brain chemistry, or a combination thereof, but in the media’s representation of illnesses like schizophrenia or chronic depression, these disorders are often misunderstood, generalized, and distorted to the extreme. Our society’s misrepresentation of mental illness causes society to fear and misinterpret them, as popular culture often portrays them in a stereotypical way. As someone who has struggled with my own mental health, some stereotypes that I have observed include that those afflicted with mental illnesses are incompetent, attention seekers, or violent. In the movie “The Joker,” they made it clear that the main character had a mental illness, but he ultimately began hurting others to cope. Another example is the movie “Split,” in which the main character quickly switches between numerous personalities and is portrayed as murderous or crazed. Not only are these stereotypes hurtful, but they create a false narrative that every person with a mental health disorder has no control over their behavior. Depending on a person’s individual condition, their symptoms can vary.
To use the example of feeling anxious versus having a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), feeling anxious can be a very normal reaction to stressful or difficult times and does not mean that one should self-diagnose with GAD. GAD is not a triggered, temporary feeling of heightened stress, but can be ongoing anxiety that spans months or even years.
In my own experiences with anxiety and depression, I’ve observed the negative effects they have on my relationships with friends and family.
When I began developing symptoms at 18-years-old, I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way. I was uneasy, overthinking minor situations, and worried about my future and what was to come. With overthinking came doubts about whether my loved ones actually cared about me, and hypersensitivity to noticing all the awful things that happened around me, and wondering if I was even real. At times, I would also feel sad spontaneously, and this would trigger my fight or flight response.
When I opened up about my anxiety and depression to my friends, they initially offered their support and shoulders for me to lean on. But as the months went on, I felt like I was bothering them, and I began to feel how prominent the stigma around openly talking about mental health is. I heard unproductive and hurtful comments like “you’re too sensitive,” “she always talks about how sad she is,” and “she’s so manipulative” after I admitted that I was depressed and having a difficult time. These insensitive comments made me feel awful and guilty, and like I was a problem and no one would ever want to be with me. Although the negative reactions I received caused me to feel like shutting everyone out, I knew that wasn’t realistic and would only make things worse. I knew that the only way to get through it if I was going to have to do it alone, would be to make sure my mental health was my main priority.
Having experienced the negative effects that often come with mental illness, I want to emphasize the importance of supporting your loved ones and friends who may be struggling. It is damaging to belittle mental illness and suggest someone should just not worry about a problem so much, or shouldn’t treat everything as that big of a deal, because these statements invalidate people’s feelings and make them feel judged. Ultimately, it is most helpful to learn how to check in with friends and family members to ensure they are okay, but without nagging them or grilling them if they prefer to keep their emotions private.
We need to take care of our peers who are experiencing this and end the stigma of mental health.