This past Sunday, I wrote a piece about how the United States Presidential candidates try to tear each other down by insinuating that their opponents were mentally ill or outright using psychiatric diagnoses that was published by the website The Mighty. That night, another Democratic debate took place and Bernie Sanders made some controversial (to say the least) comments regarding mental healthcare and the Republican debates: “We are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” Sanders said. “And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.”
As someone who has been a fervent supporer of increasing funding for mental health services, especially those for people living mental illness, so for him to make a comment that contributes to the very issues he claims to want to solve. Mary Giliberti, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wrote an eloquent and informative piece for U.S. News about the situation. In Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter, Giliberti explains,
“The irony of Sanders’ statement is that while promising to invest more money in mental health, he perpetuated the kind of public attitudes that historically have contributed to the inadequacy of the current system…
For any person who lives with a mental illness or any family that has someone challenged by mental illness, jokes and laughter can make them cringe…
Almost 17 years ago, the U.S. surgeon general’s landmark report on mental health identified stigma as a public health concern. It discourages people from seeking mental health care when they need it – which can lead to devastating, even life-threatening consequences. The report also noted that stigma “deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for, care.”…
Some people may wonder whether concern over stigma only represents political correctness. Such dismissal, however, avoids dialogue about public issues.”
It’s important to understand the pervasive these comments, negative portrayals of people living with mental illness in media, and the perpetuation of misinformation can be on people. I know for me, what gave me by previously very narrow-minded opinion on mental illness were horror/suspense movies where the bad guys’ behaviors were due to them being mentally ill and the armchair psychiatrists that would come through the woodwork to diagnose someone who committed a heinous violent act. None of which gave me accurate information.
I was negatively impacted by stigma so many times without people (including myself) realizing. I feared speaking up because I thought disclosing that I had “abnormal” feeling and experiences would make people think I was “abnormal” and because I wasn’t educated about mental illness and symptoms of these conditions, I had no way to articulate what I was feeling.
Stigma doesn’t just cause people to not seek help, if prevents people from getting educated on these topics because my school treated it as a taboo subject. At my last speaking engagement at my old college, I met a girl who graduated from the same high school as me last year and she said that even though it’s been almost 6 years since I graduates, nothing has changed regarding mental health education.
The only time teachers talked about mental health was when they were joining the students in mocking a classmate who had panic attacks everyday in school by saying she was “over dramatic” and “doing it for attention”. No one thought it was time to get her some help, not even me who knew she was having panic attacks because I had the same situation except I somehow managed to keep all the anxiety in until I got home from school. It took me years to speak up and even longer to be 100% open.
As someone who gets to educate kids, school staff, and parents about what mental illness is and the symptoms of the most common mental illnesses, I like to ask people what their perception of mental illness is before I speak. I typically get a wide variety of answers, but most of them are negative, just like what I used to believe due to the stigma in society. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to educate these people so that future generations don’t have to go through the same awful experiences I do as a result of stigma and I’m thankful I overcame stigma that stole my voice for so many years.
I hope no one’s experiences get ruined like I did when I saw Tom Petty in concert. He joked that one of his songs was about his “Bipolar” girlfriend and the crowed roared in response. This was when my diagnosis was bipolar II, so I was horrified that one of my musical idols would mock me and others like me. Also, I’m a huge horror movie fan and I can’t tell you how many films have been ruined for me because the “big reveal” was that someone was mentally ill and they become evil for no reason.
It’s bad enough when you’re fighting a war against your own thoughts. It’s even harder when you’re living in a world that explicitly and casually mocks your condition and experiences. It’s like you can never get a break from a bully that hates you for something you didn’t bring upon yourself. We need to think before we speak and stop treating people who have legitimate concerns as “overly sensitive” or part of the “PC Police”. Our words and how we use them shape our world and attitudes. I will keep fighting to make those attitudes more respectful of us people living with mental illness.