Erroneous stigma surrounds depression and other “lesser” mental disorders: out of sight, out of mind?

When people think of the mentally ill, their minds drift to insane asylums, or the homeless seen while taking BART or walking through the streets of San Francisco. On a less severe level, their minds drift to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia. While I am in no way trying to undermine the plight of those who struggle with such disorders, it is also important to recognize the “less severe” mental disorders, specifically depression, as well as the legitimacy of such ailments and the harmful stigma around them.

The first issue: people do not truly understand the definition of mental illness.

Let me preface this by saying that mental illness is a very broad term. It can refer to a myriad of different disorders and hold a myriad of different connotations and stigmas in people’s minds. Simply put, mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain that prevents someone from carrying out tasks that seem effortless or “normal” to neurotypical people.

Sure, in technical terms, this definition extends to nearly every psychological malady in the book. But to the general public, this definition, like anything, is subject to every individual’s own interpretation and bias. This creates a disparity between what is true and what is perceived. And thus, ignorance is born.

People with anxiety or depression are often seen as “attention-seeking”, melodramatic and weak for this very reason. As Dwight Schrute once inquired on the television show, “The Office”, “isn’t depression just another word for being ‘bummed out’?” This exaggerated line from the popular series is actually not far from the true stigma surrounding depression. According to a poll of 40 DV students, 60 percent of students, when asked what they thought of when they heard the word “depression”, responded with “being sad”. Similarly, according to the results, 60 percent of students thought anxiety was simply “nervousness”. Such definitions are fundamentally misinformed because they do not even begin to describe the true condition of the disorders.

Another common stigma around those who suffer from depression is that they are simply lazy. Often, people equate depression with laziness because it is seen as an excuse to “mope around”. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, lethargy and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities is a common and almost inevitable symptom of depression.

Living with depression, or any mental disorder for that matter, is like living with a punctured lung. It paralyzes you — you lay in bed, unable to move and barely able to breathe. When peers and friends discover you have a punctured lung, or any physical injury for that matter, they shower you with their condolences, their sympathy, their “get well soon”s. Admin presumably excuses you from school for however long it takes for you to recuperate to a state where you can function normally. When the injury is manifest and physical, there is a certain amount of relatability to the pain. Everyone  has felt the sting of a paper cut or the burn of a scrape to the knee. Therefore, when one sees a giant gash, or a cast on someone’s leg, they recall the time that they felt the pain on a substantially lesser level, and the pain is quantifiable.

Contrarily, when the injury is not visible it is treated as if it is not there. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong. Depression is just as crippling and just as painful as a physical injury in severe cases, yet there is still a harmful stigma. Yet depression is still not seen as a legitimate ailment.

Not everyone has felt the inner pain that victims of depression feel on a regular basis. Many people do not understand that having depression is not just getting sad over a prom ask rejection, or feeling blue after failing a Calculus test or any other kind of fleeting sadness — it’s incessant and persistent. National Alliance on Mental Illness defines depression as “a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.” Depression is more than a feeling to describe sadness, and by choosing to ignore its legitimacy as an illness, you perpetuate the harmful stigma as well.

People describe depression as being sad or lazy because it is the closest feeling that they can relate it to, and because they are not educated on its actual symptoms, consequences and treatment. A prime example is Viner Cameron Dallas’s tweet, “Don’t be depressed, go out and talk to people; make new friends”. Dallas, like many people, does not understand that a victim of clinical depression cannot simply snap out of their “blues” with the tactics that neurotypicals use. Telling a depressed person to simply “be happy” or “go out and talk to people” is like telling a homeless person to just “buy a house” or telling a deaf person to “listen”. Often, it is simply not in their capability — mentally, physically, emotionally — to choose to be happy or pull themselves out of depression through methods that help neurotypicals combat their temporary sadness. Clinical depression and all other mental health conditions usually require regular therapy and/or medication as treatment, so it is not as easy a method as simply “making new friends” that can alleviate mental disorders.

The next issue: some people simply don’t take mental illnesses seriously.

Some complications of mental disorder, like suicide or self-harm, are taken too lightly in today’s society. I have heard friends, peers and teachers joke about cutting.

One friend once told me about a D on a benchmark — “I mean, I’m not going to cry over it or start slitting my wrist over it,” she remarked, and followed the careless comment with a mocking laugh.

A teacher once advised me not to get too riled up over a rejection by saying, “If you do badly, whatever. You’ll have another chance; don’t spend hours crying or cutting yourself,” following the remark with a scoff.

Self-harm is no joke. While it is hard to pinpoint one reason why people self-harm, it usually stems from a serious mental health issue. People laugh at the sheer idea of it; they see those who self-harm as insane people who, like crack addicts, cannot control their insatiable desire to hurt themselves. Making jokes and berating those who self-harm, which for the most part I have noticed is not done with malicious intent, is still not okay because it trivializes the very real plight of those who struggle with self-harm. Not everyone who self-harms is an “emo” kid who listens to Black Veil Brides, wears thick eyeliner, plays the bass guitar and eats rocks for lunch, whom the jokes seem to be mostly targeted toward. And regardless of who it is that is self-harming, most of the time it is done out of desperation, hatred for oneself and as a result of a mental disorder — not simply a stunt for attention. Of course, for every generalization I make, there are always exceptions. And I am aware of these exceptions (like #cutforbieber and such), but try bringing up this argument for those who feel alienated and trivialized by these jokes, even if they may be a minority.

At the crux of it all, victims of mental illness are not at fault for their ailments. Just as one cannot choose who they are born as, one does not choose to suffer from mental illness. Whether a victim suffers as a result of genetics or of a negligent environment, simply put, mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain that is difficult to control.

In the end, it is a simple choice: do you want to gloss over and perpetuate the stigma against an ailment that ravages millions or educate yourself and extend your empathy to help  victims?