BY MELISSA REESE
One in five Americans is living with mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Even though this is a large portion of the population, mental illness is so deeply stigmatized that many are ashamed to speak openly about their struggles.
Mental illness can feel extremely isolating. It is important to remember that people need to speak up about their mental health, not only to lift a weight off themselves, but also to lift the same weight off the people around them who could be struggling as well.
In recent years, more people have become comfortable speaking out about mental health because it is slightly less stigmatized due to public figures, music artists, actors and celebrities being vocal about their own struggles with mental health. Musicians such as Demi Lovato have been at the forefront of the mental health awareness movement, and Lovato inspires millions of others to be vocal about their own internal struggles.
Salisbury University Counseling Center Intern Melissa Rivera-Smith believes the most important reason to talk about mental health is to “remove the stigma” surrounding mental health issues. She said mental illness is often looked down upon, even though it is something that many people suffer from.
Rivera-Smith said part of the reason why mental illness is so heavily stigmatized is because of the way our culture values privacy and self-sufficiency. She thinks that people do not want to be seen as weak by others, and decide to keep their problems to themselves.
“Because of the stigma, people don’t feel comfortable speaking up about their issues, and it builds up inside of them to the point where they don’t feel like talking about it,” said Rivera-Smith. “How do you react when someone says that they’re thinking about hurting themselves?”
Rivera-Smith said discussing suicide with others will not push them toward suicide. People either already have suicidal thoughts and ideation, or they don’t.
“Talking about it to them and acknowledging them will actually decrease their chances of doing it, because they actually feel like they’re being heard and someone understands them,” said Rivera-Smith. “I just think talking about it and not making it taboo or hiding it is the first step.”
The difficulty with mental health disorders is that they cannot be diagnosed through CAT scans or MRIs. Therefore, people have a difficult time believing that they are real, concrete illnesses.
“It’s hard to explain something that you can’t see under a microscope,” Rivera-Smith said. “Asking genuine questions from people can actually have them open up more.”
Roberto Donati, another SU Counseling Center intern, said there is a cultural stigma surrounding mental health because people are perceived as being unable to cope when they come to others about their problems rather than solving them internally.
He said it is very difficult to tell friends and family members about one’s mental health issues because people often attach negative labels to mental illness.
“It’s difficult looking to someone for help because it’s weakness, it’s being crazy,” said Donati. “Education is a way of normalizing that people have problems. Sometimes you need to talk to someone to get a better perspective. It’s mostly about talking, like everything, like every issue that has been taboo for years.”
It would be extremely helpful if mental health awareness were integrated into classroom curriculums and became a required part of subjects such as psychology, health and communications.
Mental health should be discussed from grade school because many children do not know how to vocalize and express their struggles due to ignorance surrounding mental health disorders.
ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed disorder in children. But for college students, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health disorders.
Clinical depression is a prolonged state of unhappiness, lethargy and dissatisfaction or disinterest in life, even in activities that once gave someone joy. Generalized anxiety disorder is the feeling of being on edge all the time or can be triggered in specific situations, like social anxiety.
But mental illness is not just a matter of external circumstances. It is a clinically diagnosed chemical imbalance in the brain.
While there is no cure for mental illness, it is treatable through medication and therapy. Mental illness is a fluctuating struggle, and some days will always feel worse than others.
Journalist, radio personality and podcaster Jhas Williams-Wood said the importance of being open about mental health comes down to “accountability.” She believes it is easier to connect with people and do one’s job when one is honest about their struggles with mental health.
Williams-Wood is candid about her battle with bipolar disorder and how living with mental illness has affected her work and her overall quality of life.
She believes being open about mental illness with others helps to establish and sustain authentic, meaningful relationships. She does not believe it benefits anyone when someone acts “fake” and exudes a false persona of perpetual happiness.
“People know that you’re telling the truth — they know that you’re a real person when you’re honest with them about who you are — even the good parts, even the bad parts,” said Williams-Wood. “When you are going through it, when you’re having a rough day, tell people … They can relate a lot more to that person.”