Mental illness stigma is a bigger issue than we think and something needs to be done about it

Unless we address the shame and silence around mental health issues, we will continue to see harmful effects on those with illness, their friends and family, and society at large.

Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide, suicide ideation and mental illness.

Data from the years 2000 to 2016, shows that suicide rates in the U.S. have risen to their highest point since World War II. Mental disorder diagnoses are sky-rocketing and social media has a larger effect on mental health than ever before. There is no excuse that despite all our knowledge and resources, the shame and stigma around mental health, disorders and suicide is still thriving in our everyday lives.

Kids who are afraid to talk to their parents remain naive on the subject of mental health, and are more likely to carry unresolved mental health issues into adulthood. We know that those who do not reach out for help with their mental health issues are more often the ones who fall in deeper to their mental illnesses and carry through with suicidal thoughts and two thirds of people with a mental illness never seek help from a mental health professional. We need to approach mental health issues the same way we approach physical health issues: by seeking help. We need to normalize the conversation. 

Both Canadians and Americans face the challenge of staying quiet in suffering or mustering up the courage during difficult times to speak out about their struggles. In a world that stigmatizes mental illness, it can be very hard to do this as it is seen as shameful to admit to such experiences. These societal assumptions surrounding mental illness are actively preventing people suffering from speaking up which is leading to higher suicide rates, an unproductive economy and worsening social relationships and family lives. Although not all the factors that lead to suicide may be clear, we are clear on a few, and we do know ways we can fix them. 

The romanticization of mental disorder and suicide in traditional and social media is one of the large issues that invigorate and enforce stigma. Ever seen 13 Reasons Why? This award-winning Netflix television series exemplifies a romanticized look at mental illness. The show, widely available to all audiences and popular among the age group most susceptible to suicide and depression (teens age 13-18), is based around a 17-year-old girl’s suicide, it depicts a successful suicide attempt as a gain of power, respect and purpose and as a means for revenge. This show implies that suicide can be the right answer for someone who wants to gain control over their lives or over the lives of others. Experts suggest that the depictions in and the plot of the show show are likely to trigger immitative action in someone who is already thinking of suicide. 

After an initial outcry, Netflix added warnings about the sensitive content at the beginning of each episode. They even created a seperate series where the cast, the shows writers and producers and mental health experts discuss the events that took place throughout the last two seasons pertaining to mental health, suicide and abuse. This is a tell all that even the shows creators are aware of it’s potentially dangerous plot, messages and depictions. 

The thing is that we still haven’t reached a conclusion on how we should approach mental illness and suicide. We still don’t know how far is too far nor what will eliminate the stigma vs what will exasperate it. Some psychiatrists and mental health experts say that exposure to the reality of mental illness at a young age is vital to developing a better understanding on the issue and being more open to the conversation of one’s own mental state and helping others with theirs. Even some school boards and districts are making mental illness education mandatory due to this.   

Some, however, argue it can be harmful to teach children about mental health issues and disorders and even perpetuate those same issues in the children being taught about them. They are working under the controversial and naive perspective that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. 

If education on mental health and illness is taught well and properly, it will actually have the opposite effect. Children taught properly will be more likely to understand the warning signs of developing a mental disorder and more willing to seek help  if they do come face to face with a situation of that nature. 

We need a balance of informative education and preventative measures in place and provided to both children and teens but of course we don’t need children adapting to a lifestyle lacking in dependent problem solving skills. We can be interdependent but we all need our own sense of confidence and resilience in dealing with our own issues in life. 

Another big factor involving mental illness and suicide stigma is simply how we are taught to speak and think of mental health. The widespread stigma around this topic is not only outdated but gender biased, age biased and socio-politically convoluted and distorted. People with mental illness are not just the people on the margins of society. Many mental illnesses are a matter of chemical imbalance; one does not need to have issues in order to have mental health issues. The ratio is as high as 1 in 4 people who will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. If people can see how common these issues really are, that is an initiative that can lead to change.

We know that stigma does contribute to suicide rates and we know that without stigma, people will be more willing to seek help and in turn, the number of people suffering of mental illness will drop. Here is how we can reduce that stigma and reframe the way we look at mental health and suicide.

  • Changing our language. Using words like “psycho,” “schitzo,” “retard” and  “spastic” only perpetuates the myths that those words are associated with. Something that is important to know is that social stigma is pervasive. We need to be speaking like we’re educated, or even better, actually getting educated, which brings me to my next point…
  • Getting Educated. Mental illness is not a flaw in character but rather the product of a combination of biological, sociological, psychological and environmental factors. We shouldn’t speak on something we are not informed on, but if you are informed, or are trying to become informed…
  • Talking about it. We need to become more open with the fact that mental illness affects all of us, whether it’s directly or indirectly. To reframe mental illness and suicide is to take what we know and see it in a new way. A way that will change our economy, society and relationships not only for for the better, but forever.

We need to make a societal change to see mental illness and suicide as what they are: a huge public health crisis that needs to be properly addressed. Somebody’s mental state affects much more than simply themselves. It affects not only their family and those close to them but affects their contribution to society which springs into the issue of a less productive and proactive economy. This is the same situation as with suicide. A suicide does not only affect the victim and those in their life but it is a loss of potential and on average costs 1 million dollars in investigative procedures and other policy.  

Let’s make care, treatment, help and support more accessible. Let’s improve our personal, communal and our national economic, financial and social perspective. Let’s get rid of the stigma.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please contact one one the following:

  • CanadianSuicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-833-456-4566
  • Crisis Text Line: 45645
  • BC Canada Suicide Prevention Number: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
  • Canada’s Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
  • Suicide Action Montreal: 1-866-277-3553
  • USA National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • UK Papyrus Hopeline: 0800-068-41-41

Cover Art by Chitrapa, photo by Peter Rimar

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