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The State of Mental Health’s Stigma

More than a year after the global pandemic brought mental health to center stage in a way it never has before, one thing is very clear: even if you’re suffering, there’s a stigma when it comes to mental health.

For people struggling with common disorders like anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders, a cloud hangs over their ability to be honest. Even though an American Psychological Association poll reports that 87% of American adults agreed that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, talking about a diagnosis, medication, therapy, treatment or simply needing someone to talk to can be difficult.

Mental illness is not something new— it’s afflicted people since civilization began. The Greeks and Egyptians thought that a person who was mentally sick was possessed. In harmless cases, rituals were performed. But in harmful cases, the person was subjected to painful surgeries. This misunderstanding of mental health continued even with the advancement of medicine, as governments got involved, creating asylums in the 18th century and furthering the stigmatization.

Though strides have been taken to normalize mental health, longstanding cultural and societal habits mean that people who suffer from mental illness are often misunderstood, and sometimes mistreated.

Unfortunately, this can discourage some people from getting the help they need. Not only do they fear being ostracized by friends and family, but they are afraid that they could be fired from their job. If they are unemployed, it could deter potential employers from hiring them. And so the downward cycle continues. Still, there’s hope.

Mental Health in Popular Culture

One of the ways people can find comfort and a sense of solidarity is through culture, whether that’s in portrayals of mental illness in TV, movies, and books or by looking at celebrities who have the same or similar illness. For example, though he plays a superhero on the big screen, Hollywood actor Chris Evans has battled both depression and anxiety, telling Rolling Stone that he spent three weeks studying with a meditation guru in India.

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps credits both therapy and swimming when it comes to acquiring focus and discipline. Wanting to help others, Michael has teamed up with Talkspace, a company that offers mental health treatment through your smartphone or computer.

Meghan Markle talked openly with Oprah about depression, postpartum, and the mental health she needed after experiencing suicidal thoughts during life with the Royal Family in England. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And that was very clear and real and frightening,” she said, explaining that she told Harry she couldn’t be alone and that if she hadn’t spoken about it, she could have hurt herself.

The musical Dear Evan Hansen, which won many Tony Awards including Best Musical in 2017, sparked thousands of conversations about mental health for its depiction of suicide and social anxiety. American Authors, the band famous for its catchy song “Best Day of My Life” released a new song in 2020 called “Deep Water,” with anthemic lyrics like, “when I’m sinking like a stone at least I’m not alone” and “when it pulls me under, will you make me stronger? Will you be my breath through the deep, deep water?”

The openness of the conversation around mental health and the way their honesty reverberates throughout popular culture prompts even more conversations, helping others talk about their own feelings. Perhaps just as important, it also helps others feel less alone—whether they feel similar feelings or know and love someone who’s struggling with similar feelings.

Moving the Conversation Forward

The American Psychological Association reports that 86% of people said they believe that people struggling with mental health who seek help can get better.

However, many barriers stand in the way. Even though Congress passed the Mental Health Equity Act, a law mandating that insurers provide access to mental health care, many Americans are still finding it difficult to obtain treatment, particularly people of color. Long wait times, trouble finding specialists, and high deductibles are just some of the obstacles people face.

Apps and sites like Doctor on Demand and AmWell provide talk therapy over video, and BetterHelp and Talkspace provide text therapy, and Sesh provides unlimited group sessions. These are not free but they are more accessible, and some do take insurance.

There is no quick fix to changing societal norms around mental health. Some people will never understand what it means to struggle with mental health. Some people will never know how to talk about it. However, the more we all continue to, the closer we can get to destigmatization.


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