Don’t Let Stigma Win: You Can and Should Talk about Mental Illness

by Lyndsey Brollini

Stigma around mental illness is real and affects individuals in negative ways, often leading them to remain silent about their condition rather than seek help or treatment. It is important to talk about these issues get all the relevant facts because forgoing assistance can have detrimental consequences, to the point of suicide for some.

I held my own stigma to heart much of my life, never asking for help with my mental health because I thought it meant I was weak. I stubbornly wanted to prove I could handle my problems on my own. 

Similarly, Amanda Hayes, a pre-medical student at the University of Washington (UW), also resisted admitting her condition and her need for help. “I denied being bipolar for a year.” Amanda did not have a diagnosis until sophomore year of college. Before being diagnosed, she experienced mental health hardships without knowing what was wrong. She attempted suicide three times.

Amanda’s experience reflects the situation of many people with bipolar disorder and other mental illness. 25-50 percent of those with bipolar attempt suicide. Of all suicides in the U.S., over 90 percent had a diagnosable mental disorder. 

Once Amanda was diagnosed and accepted she had bipolar disorder, she coped with her mental illness and the stigma people attached to her as “crazy” and “schizophrenic” in a variety of ways. She now looks on her past coping methods, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, trying to look thin, attending church, or reading books as “binges”. “I went from one addiction to another,” she said.

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Amanda Hayes is studying to attend medical school and is a recent graduate of the UW class of 2017. [Photo courtesy of Amanda Hayes.]
Now her “binges” include working at Harborview Medical Center, going to church, and reading books. Working at Harborview, she has learned how doctors and surgeons conduct themselves professionally and uses that knowledge in her own life to handle her bipolar disorder and mental health stigma.

UW alumna Gail, who requested anonymity, has struggled with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and eating disorders. She felt different, and ultimately isolated, from other people because of the stigma around these mental health topics. 

“Stigma made me keep it to myself, and only between me and paid professionals,” said Gail. “The whole purpose of participating in psychiatry was to appear normal to other students because I thought that I had to.”

The professionals she saw contributed to her stigma and exacerbated her problems. “The majority of stigma comes from the concept that people have something physically wrong with them,” Gail said. 

Clinical psychologist and suicide prevention researcher Dr. Ursula Whiteside views stigma similarly. “Mental health providers are people with the most stigma and the least stigma,” she said.

Stigma from mental health providers and from other students pressured Gail to be silent. In hindsight, she wished she would have been able to talk to other students about her struggles.

Pressure not to talk about mental illness is prevalent for veterans as well. “You cannot talk about mental illness at all,” said Daniel Singer, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by his involvement in a motorcycle accident.

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David in front of the Student Veteran Life office at the UW Seattle campus. He studied linguistics at UW and is a recent graduate in the class of 2017. [Photo: Lyndsey Brollini]
In his experience, the military stigmatized mental illness as sign of personal weakness. Because of this stance, many military members would not express their own mental health issues.

David recalled one man he knew who did not believe in PTSD and therefore did not think he had it. However, David saw how this man felt more comfortable in Afghanistan. Seeing a man get shot in the head also affected him, but he would not say anything about it.

After his accident, Daniel realized he had PTSD. What frustrated him was that, “When you hear PTSD, you immediately think combat.” This stereotype made talking about PTSD harder for David because his PTSD stemmed from his accident and not his combat experience.

However, the understanding of having PTSD itself helped him articulate his feelings and begin handling his PTSD through sailing, writing stories, and observing himself with more care.

Mental illness in numbers

We will never know how many people suffer in silence. However, we do know how prevalent mental illness is, even without taking undiagnosed mental illness into account. In the U.S., approximately 17.9 percent of the population has Any Mental Illness (AMI). That is about 43. 4 million people.

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Statistics and information on mental illness found on the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. {Data visual by Lyndsey Brollini]

As the numbers show, the stakes are high when it comes to mental illness, especially because mood disorders are a main factor contributing to suicide. Considering the direct links between mental health and suicide, it is important to remember that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for those aged 15-34 and the tenth leading cause overall.

Internationally, over 800,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). If the same or a similar percentage of these deaths is linked to mental health and mental health stigma, we need to pay closer attention to these issues. The WHO also highlights how stigma against patients and families prevents people from seeking mental health care around the globe. This resistance is detrimental because, according to the UW School of Social Work, “People who die by suicide are frequently experiencing undiagnosed, undertreated, or untreated depression.”

Speaking up to break the stigma

The potential consequences of untreated mental illness show how important it is to break the mental illness stigma and encourage people to seek help.

“The scariest part [of mental illness] is that you’re not in control,” Amanda said. “You can only deal with it by yourself for so long.”

Personally, it was not until my boss asked me if I wanted to attempt suicide that I came to realize I should seek help. The next day I made my first appointment with a psychologist in the UW Counseling Center.

I only saw a psychologist two times, but it was an important step for me. It proved that I could break my own stigma. I did not book an appointment out of weakness. It was one of the hardest things I ever did, but I could not live like I was anymore. Handling my problems by myself was no longer an option if I wanted to get better.

Talking openly about mental illness helps break stigma because, as Dr. Whiteside said, “The more you act like there isn’t stigma, the more others will act like there isn’t stigma.”

When asking Dr. Whiteside what motivates people to speak up and get help, she said that many will actually do it “to reduce stigma and show others that [they] can do this.” They want to be brave and hope it will make speaking up and getting help easier for those who are currently silent about their mental illness. 

This is why I wanted to write about this issue and why Amanda agreed to an interview for the article–“It will help other people with mental illness to not hide and stand strong.”

Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (CQ)

http://www.crisistextline.org/

https://www.samhsa.gov

http://www.nowmattersnow.org/

http://www.intheforefront.org/

http://www.dbsalliance.org/

http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

Lyndsey is an Alaska Native journalist from Anchorage, Alaska who writes because she wants to tell the stories of underrepresented communities like her own. She loves to experience new cultures through travel, music, and food – her three favorite things – while occasionally enjoying a Russian novel.

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