A Small Step to Fighting the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

fighting stigma around mental illness“How are you?”

This deceptively simple question can prove more loaded than the asker intended. Personally, I catch the word “good” flying out of my mouth instinctively, nearly before the question even registers in my head. This answer is familiar to me. It’s usually what the asker expects to hear, and it fits the societal norm of pretending everything is “okay,” thereby allowing the conversation to continue politely.

Even on days where the word “good” coming out of my mouth is a blatant lie, the thought of honestly answering this question rarely crosses my mind.  I would rather lie than find myself in a conversation about the true state of my mental well-being.

What about truthfully answering this question am I afraid of? Why as a society must we uphold a reputation of always being “okay?” What would happen if I answered with “I’ve been better?” Or “Today/this week/life in general has been rough?” Or “Not too hot at the moment?”

Imagine the possibility of where this conversation could lead.

For most, the thought of having a conversation like this shakes us to our core. The vulnerability in admitting we are not okay only highlights how the stigma of talking about mental health has embedded itself into the roots of our society, grounding itself in our most basic everyday interactions.

Consciously or not, when answering this question, we are participating in either reinforcing the stigma surrounding mental health, or actively working to fight it. It just depends on the way in which we answer.

According to The National Alliance on Mental Health, a 2017 study found that nearly one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness. This statistic has gained popularity as the backbone of the present-day mental health awareness plight, but it’s hard to grasp the impact of this number until we envision it in terms of our everyday lives.

One in five people—it could be someone in your immediate family, roughly 20 people out of a 100-person class lecture, a handful of people on your daily bus commute, or at least one person in line at your favorite coffee shop during a morning rush.

When applying this statistic to the tangible lives it represents, it can be shocking to visualize how many people struggle with mental illness. So then why has a stigma developed on an issue that nearly 20% of the US population is afflicted with?

If we answered the question of “how are you?” truthfully, odds are we would run ourselves into some deeper and more emotionally-provoking conversations. Once we have these conversations more frequently, we can take strides to tackle the stigma surrounding the issues that so many of us struggle with silently.

By being more honest about our current mental state on an everyday level, we can open the doors to more casual, real, conversations about mental health.  The acceptance of vulnerability in admitting we are not always “okay” is the strength we need to break this stigma.

We can start to change the negative connotation on mental illness and “not being okay” with one small thing that regularly occurs to us every day: answer honestly when someone asks how you are doing.

I’m not suggesting that we start by unloading our personal issues onto the 19-year-old bagging our groceries at Trader Joe’s—there are certainly situations when “good” is the only appropriate answer. But it is important to realize when we are using the word “good” as a means to gloss over an opportunity to connect with someone, and even more crucial, to recognize when we use this word in covering up how we sincerely feel.

Through more candid conversations on mental health, we as a society can become more united and genuinely invested in the well-being of those around us, because you never know who is the one in five.

About the Author

Cameron Gordon Cameron Gordon is a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara pursuing a double major in English and Spanish. Both passionate about writing and promoting the importance of mental health, Gordon aspires to attain a career centered around writing and education.

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2 Comments

Karen

Can you please present some information on the role inflammation in the brain plays in the excruciating painful symptoms of depression.

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