I could never do such a thing.
Suicide is for the weak.
You have to let yourself be depressed; it’s a state of mind.
I’ll never hear voices.
She must have the devil in her.
What kind of parents does that kid have?
It irks me to write each one of the aforementioned statements. I have heard them over and over again during my last decade working in mental health and, well, just while doing my day-to-day business as a human. Every time I hear someone say a phrase trivializing the toll and impact of mental health in our lives, I hear my mother’s voice loud and clear: “People in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones.”
It’s as if we as a society assume that for someone to suffer with a mental health issue, he or she woke up and decided to consciously make life difficult for him or herself. Really!? Yep. Today, I want my life to suck. This sounds ridiculous. And… it is.
The reality is that both physical and mental health are complex. Overall well-being is affected by multiple factors to include stress, genetics, environment, diet, and the occurrence of negative life events. I am a pretty resilient person. This being said, if my phone rang 10 minutes from now and the person on the other end of the phone told me that my husband and sons had perished in an accident, I would instantly become a very different woman. My reasons for living would be gone.
Or maybe the trigger for my decline was more covert. Maybe I was born into a stressful environment and suffered trauma as a child. I repressed the negative memories. Then one morning a smell, or a sound, or a life event brought back memories that I never intended to revisit. Now I am bombarded with flashbacks that make me question my entire life and nightmares chase me from my sleep. How could this be happening? I never intended this to happen.
Or, maybe my mental health was impacted by silent biological and environmental reactions within my body. Maybe as I left the comfort of home for my college dorm, I began to hear voices. They’re in my head, and I can’t think of anything else. In fact, I can’t remember a time when they didn’t. My reality shifts and I’m not sure what is real anymore. Lastly, my moods shift. I manage my mood, but I really don’t want anyone to know that I am struggling.
Recently, I was out for the evening when the topic of mental health came up in regard to the need for health care reform. I found myself silently seething as I listened to the discussion and fell into the role of educating the others with whom I was seated.
Here are the top five ideas that can really increase stigma unwittingly.
1. “Depression and/or anxiety are simple reactions to events.”
Depression and anxiety affect both the body and mind and are complex occurrences. They result from biological, environmental, and social factors. Both can feel like a heavy weight on the person experiencing them first-hand. Although some people will suffer acute depression or anxiety tied to a life event, not every case is so simple. Therapy and medication are both evidenced-based treatments to help those affected heal.
2. “Some of us are immune to mental health disorders.”
Good luck with this one. No one is immune. Mental health exists on a continuum. A human being can travel this continuum throughout his or her lifetime.
3. “It’s all mind over matter when it comes to mental health.”
If it were this simple, therapists, social workers, and psychiatrists would be out of jobs. We as humans are a package deal. Our minds and bodies are inexplicably connected. Trauma affects the mind, body, and spirit. Depression makes getting out of bed feel impossible. It takes work, hard work, to learn to manage or overcome an illness.
4. “A lack of faith or a movement toward evil causes mental illness.”
Although spirituality and faith can positively affect both physical and mental health, a lack of faith is not a sentence to suffer through illness. Just as cancer is not a punishment from God, neither is a diagnosis such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This concept can add to the way that we, as a society, shame those who suffer poor mental health.
5. “Only the weak consider suicide; it’s an easy choice.”
According to the CDC, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2015. Suicide is far from a simple decision to avoid pain. It is complex, fueled by feelings of pain, guilt, shame, and being trapped. It’s not as simple as giving up. Oversimplifying suicide can push those suffering from thoughts of suicide and self-harm away. Categorizing suicide as a choice considered by the weak can lead to a horrible downward spiral, as once a person considers suicide, he or she may start to think of him or herself as weak, further reinforcing thoughts of inadequacy. If we don’t assume that we all have inner strength and an ability to heal from the start of addressing suicide, what does that mean for the person who is already struggling? If it’s so easy, why not just give up now?
In the end, we all need to judge less and understand more, and language matters. I will not be throwing stones at anyone’s house anytime soon. In fact, I want to help other people make their homes stronger and ready for the inevitable bad weather that will come. I can do this through how I engage the topic of mental health throughout my daily life. I can remain committed to the ideal that every person deserves access to mental health care. I can remain educated and be at the ready to squash stigma and offer a caring hand. You can too.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database