Stigma remains a barrier between students and mental healthcare

One in five people are living with a mental illness in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

One in five.

One in five people are in need of treatment and support to overcome an illness that affects their day-to-day lives. Only about half of these people will receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Why are so few getting the care they need?

The answer is simple: stigma.

Stigma often involves false assumptions many people have about what it means to be mentally ill: thoughts such as, mentally ill people just need to tough it out, or having a mental illness means someone “lost their mind” and “went crazy.”

These false ideas put people with mental illness in a box, clouding out the truth of what mental illness really is and replacing it with damaging stereotypes. They are nasty, unrelenting labels put on people with mental illness. Soon, people equate having a mental illness with being “lazy,” “crazy” or even “dangerous.”

It’s simply not true, yet it continues to dominate our society’s way of thinking.

Other illnesses don’t get this sort of response. No one would ever call a cancer patient weak for seeking treatment. No one ever looks at someone with a heart condition as a dangerous person they should fear. No one would ask someone with a broken foot to get up and keep walking.

“Many people living with a mental illness lead healthy, full lives. But they need the opportunity to receive the support and care they deserve.”

 

But for some reason, this happens to people experiencing mental illness every day.

The pain and the feeling of isolation that this puts on individuals experiencing mental illness keeps them from seeking treatment. Who would want to raise their hand and admit that they have an illness that people associate with being “crazy?”

Getting support from professionals and friends alike is crucial in overcoming a mental illness. Fighting through the pain and hardships alone can be extremely difficult.

This is where stigma can turn deadly. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America, and 90 percent of suicides are related to a mental illness, according to NAMI.

It is important to realize that this is the exception, not the rule. Being diagnosed with a mental illness does not mean death. Many people living with a mental illness lead healthy, full lives. But they need the opportunity to receive the support and care they deserve.

Here at Western there are resources available to students who feel like they are in need of support for their mental health. It is important students know those resources are there, but to use them it’s critical they feel like it’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help takes courage, but people shouldn’t have to muster up all of their strength just to ask for the proper care they require for a health condition.

Keeping up with mental health during college is crucial, since 75 percent of all mental health conditions begin by age 24, according to NAMI. College is stressful enough as it is, and neglecting mental health care exacerbates that stress.

In 2012, NAMI surveyed college students and people who had been students within the last five years. The study found that 64 percent of former students surveyed were no longer attending college because of a mental health related reason. They also found that 50 percent of the students who dropped out had not accessed mental health services or support.

“It is up to us as a society to allow people to feel safe seeking the care they need. We need to end the stigma that holds people back from doing this.”

 

The study doesn’t elaborate on why the students did not access mental health services, but it is not too much of a gamble to guess that, for many of these students, stigma played a role.

Whether people are trying to finish school, or just trying to make it through another day, they deserve to reach their highest potential regardless of their mental health. It is up to us as a society to allow people to feel safe seeking the care they need. We need to end the stigma that holds people back from doing this.

There are many simple steps that we, as a society, can take to end stigma.

Being aware of what you say is an easy first step. Mental illnesses have entered the mainstream dialogue in a way that most other illnesses have not. They are constantly being turned into adjectives. A couple of popular examples include, “The weather is so bipolar today” or “I’m so OCD when it comes to this.”

It’s often innocent and it might not seem like a big deal. For someone who is living with that illness, however, hearing people casually throw those terms around can be painful and add to perceptions of stigma that person is already dealing with. The more people hear these terms used casually, the more likely they are to assume mental illness isn’t an illness that deserves respect.

When we stop bringing mental health into the conversation in the wrong way, we can start bringing it in the right way by getting healthy dialogue going about what mental illness really is. The more we talk about it, the less mystery there will be surrounding it, and therefore less of an opportunity for people to misunderstand it. Education is key in dispelling common misconceptions.

And if you are someone struggling with a mental illness, don’t let the stigma out there weigh you down. Easier said than done, I know. Know that there are resources available to you including the Counseling Center, Prevention and Wellness Services, and clubs on campus like NAMI on Campus WWU and To Write Love on Her Arms.

We as a society need to recognize: It’s always okay to ask for help when it comes to your mental health.

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