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Silent Stigma: The Mental Health Stigma in America


I sit in the crowded lecture room, looking on with boredom as the professor drones on about acid and bases and redox reactions. It’s been two hours and there is still an hour to go. My mind is more than ready for a break. Out of the monotonous lecturing I hear my professor crack a joke, “I know what you’re thinking, I must’ve forgotten to take my meds”. The class laughs, I do not. I blush slightly, and snap to attention, clutching my notebook and pen. That night, after supper, I open the square white pill bottle, and pour out a single pink pill. An antipsychotic: a “crazy pill” as the public knows it. I gulp it down.

A few months ago I got these pills, but only after weeks of haunting auditory hallucinations, or voices, being unable to concentrate or comprehend my schoolwork (or anything really), and frightening states of immobility known as catatonia. My grades suffered horrendously, and I was in agony, but still I refused to get help. After finally seeing a psychiatrist, I was put on this medication, and diagnosed with prodromal schizophrenia, the early stages of the disease.

Many people have asked me why I took so long to get help. The answer? Stigma. I was afraid, not only of myself and what was happening to me, but the world and how it would react to me. I’d seen the news, picking on every mental imperfection a criminal might have. I’d seen TV and movies making fun of—or worse, villainizing—those with mental illness. Worst of all, I’d seen people, and how they react to the word “mental illness”, and to the people themselves. “They should be reported to the police.” They should be locked up.” “They’re just using it as an excuse.” They’re faking it.” These are all things I’ve heard people say in regards to people struggling with mental illness, and this is why I refused to get help for so long, why I allowed myself to be tortured for so long.

One in four people meet the diagnostic criteria for some sort of mental illness…

I did get help though, and now I’m on the road to recovery. I now find myself among the ranks of those who do not have an “endearable” mental illness, one not understood or readily accepted by society. People don’t understand it, the way they do depression, anxiety, and even PTSD. After all, people have been depressed before, they’ve been anxious before, and PTSD has a clear-cut cause in most cases. It’s understandable, relatable. Most people, however, have never heard voices in the middle of the night, or sat, motionless, staring at a wall for forty-five minutes. While mental health stigma looms large for all forms of mental illness, it is the most oppressive for those that people do not understand. People tend to have a mix of awe and fear of what they do not understand. My illness, along with many others, falls within that category.

This is the reason I am writing to you today. To dispel some of that fear, to show you that people with mental illness are just that, people. They are not “nut-cases”, they are not criminals, fakers, or psychopath murderers. They are just people, much like yourself, who are dealing with something most people cannot imagine. I encourage you to remind yourself of this every time you see or hear anyone talking about mental illness. After all, it is easy to humans to label someone by something like an illness, and forget that there is a person underneath it. Please, do not allow yourself to do that.

Remember that feelings are not the only thing at stake when it comes to mental health stigma. Countless people commit suicide every year instead of facing that stigma and getting help. I could’ve been one of them. Many more simply refuse to get help because of it, and instead continue on suffering. Such casualties and pain are unnecessary and shameful, simply a result of that human capacity to label and stigmatize what they do not fully understand.

One in four people meet the diagnostic criteria for some sort of mental illness according to the World Health Organization. Clearly, mental illness is not unique or rare. Nor is it shameful to have, or know someone with, a mental illness. We only have this life, if you must resent someone, do it for something they have chosen for themselves; mental illness is not one of them. Learn all you can about mental illness, if you know someone who is struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out, and whatever you do, never hinder.

Learn more about mental illness at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): http://www2.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/About_Mental_Illness.htm

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