This year was pretty terrible in a lot of ways. And, sadly, the attitudes surrounding mental health were no exception.
The last 52 weeks brought a lot of disappointing instances of stigma and discrimination, from presidential candidates slinging mental health terms as insults to the media wrongly associating mental illness with violence. These public affronts can be remarkably damaging on the whole. Research shows people with psychological health issues often don’t seek professional help due to fear of judgment or shame.
What's more, unprecedented anxiety due to current events also meant that mental health itself was at risk for many. A report conducted by the American Psychological Association found that the majority of Americans said they felt that the 2016 election was somewhat or a significant source of stress. And acts of terror like the mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Orlando had the potential to result in instances of vicarious trauma and psychological health issues.
Fortunately, there were also a few shining examples of progress to balance out the terrible ones. More celebrities spoke out about their own experience with mental illness and TV shows poignantly tackled mental health conditions.
We rounded up some of the most prominent mental health events of 2016. Below are just a few of the good, the bad and the ugly ways this year made a mark:
Mental health issues were used as insults.
Candidates during the 2016 election turned to mental health as a way of firing at their opponents.
During a democratic primary debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders joked, “When you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest a lot in mental health.” And now president-elect Donald Trump often used mental illness terminology as pejorative insults toward his critics:
Experts stress that the words we use matter. Throwing around phrases like “mental breakdown” and “crazy” only further alienate those dealing with a mental health disorder.
They’re still seen as weaknesses.
Back in November, the president-elect gave credence to the false stereotype that veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder do so because they’re not strong enough.
“They see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said at a veterans’ rally.
And Trump wasn’t the only one who classified a mental health disorder this way. House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted back in March that he would be giving up “character deficiencies” like anxiety for Lent, the Christian season around Easter where people sacrifice certain luxuries from their lives as a form of penitence for 40 days. Psychological health issues are often seen as “flaws,” which contributes to the stigma surrounding it.
Public figures delegitimized mental illness in the media.
Recently, former CNN personality Piers Morgan got into a heated Twitter exchange with singer Lady Gaga, who recently revealed she suffers from PTSD. Morgan accused Gaga of creating her diagnosis “for attention” and asserted that only people in the military can have PTSD.
Morgan is not only wrong about PTSD being just a military issue (the condition can also develop as a result of experiences with sexual assault or violence, for example), his judgmental statements are damaging when it comes to stigma. People with mental health conditions often stay silent for fear of being shamed, which can prevent them from seeking professional help.
The best mental health candidate lost the election.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t just poised to be the first woman president ― she was arguably going to be one of the best leaders for mental health the White House had seen in years.
During the final months of the election, Clinton released a comprehensive mental health plan that tackled stigma in a powerful way. Not only would it have required insurance companies to provide better coverage for mental health conditions, in an effort to make treatment more accessible. The campaign also hoped to instill a message in young people that mental health is important.
“The next generation must grow up knowing that mental health is a key component of overall health and there is no shame, stigma or barriers to seeking out care,” Clinton’s team said in a statement.
The Trump administration has yet to release a plan that solely addresses mental health.
And the entertainment world lost a mental health icon.
Actress Carrie Fisher, who was a fierce mental health advocate, died in December at the age of 60.
Fisher bravely discussed her experience with bipolar disorder and addiction in the media for decades ― something that was essentially unheard of in Hollywood at the time she began. She shattered stigma by owning her mental health issues and encouraged others to do the same.
The media disproportionately associated mental illness with violence.
A Johns Hopkins University study published in June found that more than one third of news stories about mental illness associated it with violent behavior. This figure does not reflect the actual rates of interpersonal violence where mental illness is involved, according to the study’s authors. In fact, data shows only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are committed by those with a serious mental illness.
This is especially problematic when it comes to eliminating stigma. Many people falsely believe that mental health issues lead to violence, when more often than not, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Research shows people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of a violent crime.
But, it’s not all bad news. Here are a few ways our culture worked to dismantle the negative attitudes surrounding psychological health:
TV shows beautifully exposed the reality of mental illness.
More and more shows are tackling the complicated nuances of mental health ― and are doing so phenomenally.
Take, for example, the FXX show “You’re The Worst,” which is billed as an anti-romantic comedy. In one particularly poignant episode this year, the plot focused on character Edgar Quintero, a war veteran dealing with PTSD.
The storyline perfectly captured the harsh realities those with the condition face, from encountering triggers of war memories in the grocery store to experiencing insomnia. The show’s honest account of what individuals with mental illness deal with on a regular basis is a welcome portrayal in mainstream culture.
More celebrities advocated for mental health acceptance.
Public advocacy is critical when it comes to eliminating mental health misconceptions, according to experts. And fortunately 2016 saw its fair share of positive messaging from celebrities.
Public figures from Amanda Seyfried and Zayn Malik to Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama all worked to erase the negative attitudes around mental health, whether it was being open about their medication or challenging the notion that mental illness is something shameful.
“The stigma around talking about mental health and getting help for it just doesn’t make any sense,” Obama told Prevention magazine in October. “This is an issue that affects us all.”
Now that’s how you talk about psychological well-being. Can we see more of this next year?