As soon as my grandmother hears a single cough from you at breakfast, she will immediately announce her diagnosis of several potential illnesses. Despite the fact that nine times out of ten, the cough came from you carelessly inhaling a mouthful of your cereal, she will still claim you need to finish your meal with antibiotics. After being scolded for not wearing enough, staying up too late, or eating too many packs of instant ramen noodles, she would tell you that you need to see a doctor for your developing bronchitis, flu, or ear infection.
While my grandmother and other members of her generation may not follow the most accurate medical procedures for diagnosing illnesses, it would seem almost universal that physical health and sickness are seemingly constant concerns to watch out for in younger family members. I could only wish that she would someday feel the same enthusiasm for mental health in our family. Why are you crying? Why are you anxious for your finals? Don’t be so weak. It’s not such a big deal. Man up. What do you mean you don't want to eat? Why do you spend so much time in bed? Stop being so sad and lazy all the time. Just get up!
My grandmother of course is a figurative stand-in for a large number of people in our society. Despite what I have just described and quoted from her, I do not think she is a terrible person (very few grandmothers leave that impression on people). In fact, young and old alike, a shocking number of people who fully believe in the practices of medical diagnosis and treatment for physical illnesses still view mental health with prejudice and negativity. Despite the fact that an estimated 1 in 5 adults in the USA (nearly 44 million people) experience mental illness in a given year, over 70% of these people receive no treatment by mental healthcare experts (“Any Mental Illness…”, 2015). For comparison, an average of 200,000 people are diagnosed with the flu every year in the USA (“What Are Your Odds…”, 2017) — 220 times fewer. Nonetheless, suicide is still one of the leading causes of death in the USA every single year, and people continue to suffer from undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses. Treatment and detection of mental illness is often clouded by a societal belief that emotional difficulty is caused by weakness, overreactions, and a lack of self-control. We have for so long stigmatized mental health, institutionalizing and outcasting those who suffer from mental illness. Now is the time for change, but progress is hindered by societal assumptions, stereotypes, and misguided generalizations many of us accept about mental health being anything different from physical health.
I have witnessed firsthand the stigmatization of mental illness, and the detrimental effects it can have on our lives. Mental health issues have greatly impacted my friends, my family, and myself. Despite this however, I have found that time and time again, that the hardest thing to do is to speak out. The stigma of seeking help for mental and emotional difficulties is pervasive everywhere from the USA to China (having lived in both countries for 11 and 7 years respectively). Societal stigma creates attitudes of fear, rejection, discrimination, and avoidance towards people who are mentally ill or distressed. This stigma feeds into a cycle of the person refusing to engage in mental health treatment and care, as well as less effective responses to treatment, as they may be pushed further into misery from public stigma.
Emotional hardships do not automatically heal with time — they turn into sensitive scars and triggers that can continue to bring misery for years on. Cultural and societal constraints force people around the world in every situation to hide their emotional struggles and mental illnesses, out of fear of far too common discrimination, backlash, and embarrassment. As powerless as it may feel to try and change society, the biggest step we can take to change the stigma around mental health is to advocate for the cause in our own families, communities, and lives. Starting the conversation is the hardest part, but we have to normalize talking about mental health if we ever want to normalize mental healthcare.