We need better education about mental health

By Branwyn Wilkinson

Opinion Contributor

If you think mental illness is losing its stigma, you’re wrong. Just because people post about it on platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest all the time does not mean it is becoming more accepted. At least on sites like Tumblr, it is very easy to hide your real identity. And even if you do share an article more publicly, it does not mean you personally are struggling. You could easily have just posted it because of a friend or family member.

More importantly,  reading or posting about mental illness is not getting help. Many of the “how to deal with depression/anxiety” posts you see, with suggestions such as getting enough sleep and eating right, are most effective for riding out the kind of depression and anxiety anyone might deal with.

There is a difference between being depressed and suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, just as there is a difference between feeling anxious and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. While focusing on maintaining basic mental health is definitely important for people with mental illnesses, people with diagnosed disorders usually need more specific help to manage their illness. Just as telling someone who is diabetic to simply “eat right” would not help them manage their illness, telling someone suffering from anxiety to “stop worrying” will also not help them manage their illness.

We must remember that mental illness is an illness, just like diabetes or heart disease, and  requires professional intervention just like diabetes or heart disease. Yet many people who suffer from mental illness don’t get that professional intervention when they need it, because they are told to “get over it.” You would never tell someone complaining of chest pain to get over it, but people are discouraged, whether directly or indirectly, from talking about their mental health and from seeking help.

Why? It’s 2016. It’s been centuries since we believed that symptoms of mental illness meant possession. More recently, psychologists have discovered physiological differences in mentally ill people, proof that it is indeed an illness that can be treated and managed. Yet if the stigma against it is breaking down, it sure isn’t breaking down fast.

Part of the reason mental illness is still so taboo to talk about is likely because that’s what is modeled to us. We live in a society obsessed with celebrities and, like it or not, that’s where we get a lot of our cues from. And how many celebrities are open about struggling with mental illness?

Early last week, Kanye West was hospitalized for exhaustion after a string of erratic behavior and the eventual canceling of his Saint Pablo tour. Now, more than 8 days later, he still hasn’t been discharged. This has lead many to speculate that Kanye is suffering from something more serious than exhaustion. But is it as serious as a full-blown mental illness? No one knows. While tabloids have reported delusions and hallucinations, actual news sources have been vague about what West is being treated for, as well as about what actions led to the 911 call and his hospitalization.

With singers and rappers, we can often turn to their lyrics to find the truth. West has mentioned mental illness in a couple of his songs before, but he has not been open about whether or not he actually suffers from a mental illness. This, of course, is his right. No one, even celebrities, should have to be public about any health problems they may suffer. However, if West’s hospitalization really was because of a mental illness, clearly he was keeping quiet to more than just the media.

If even celebrities are uncomfortable talking to their families and doctors about their mental health, that speaks volumes about just how deep the stigma against mental illness is in our society. Not seeking help feeds the stigma, which in turn feeds not seeking help in a dangerous cycle.

And that’s why opening up about suffering from a mental illness is such an act of bravery. I applaud anyone who, despite all the doubts mental illness creates, still was able to break the cycle by seeking help. Being open about seeking that help is an even braver step. Because even though help was only needed because of an illness beyond that person’s control, as all illnesses are, that’s still not how it’s viewed.

By talking about mental health, both good and bad, we can change the view that mental illness is something frightening and abnormal. We need to talk more about mental health, especially on college campuses, for all of our sakes. With the internet, it is easy to self diagnose. And if you’ve never picked up a psychology textbook, you don’t know about Psychology Student Syndrome and that we all experience minor symptoms similar to those of mental illnesses regularly.

A mental illness has to do with long-term feelings. It is not situational, but not everyone knows that. Someone may just be having a bad week, or even a bad month, but if they self-diagnose with a mental illness, whether or not they actually suffer from one, it can still lead to harmful coping methods. Let’s face it: illness is scary, and fear definitely won’t help you feel better.

But an overabundance of people with self-diagnosed mental health problems can overshadow people who actually suffer from mental illness. If everyone else is walking around claiming they have anxiety, people with an actual disorder may feel even more uncomfortable seeking help. Because if everyone else is dealing with it on their own, they should be able to, too, right?

I’m not saying that people who recognize symptoms of mental illness in themselves are always wrong, but without any training or ever talking to a professional, it’s definitely a possibility. That’s why we need better education about mental health.

In this fast-paced world, we need to be taught how to maintain good mental health, and we need to be taught how to recognize when professional help is needed. We need to learn not to judge and belittle people with mental illness. Maybe then, we’ll all be able to keep our brains a little healthier and our lives a little happier.

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