How to Do Your Part to De-Stigmatize Mental Illness

According to the World Health Organization, one million people die from suicide every year. This of course does not represent all of those with mental disorders, as the great majority of people with mental disorders do not take their own lives. However, mental illness, even in 2020, personally affecting 1 out of every 5 people (according to the National Institute of Mental Health), largely continues to be a silent epidemic. Much of this stems from the inherent shame mental illness brings. Unlike physical maladies which can be talked about openly without fear of judgment, and which only bring empathy and concern, mental maladies are not well understood by the general public and are more likely to evoke negative feelings towards the sufferer. Many people still believe that those with mental disorders are weak, faking, or just looking for pity — that if they really wanted to change, they could. Of course, nobody feels this way about someone with cancer, arthritis, or a broken limb. I believe a lot of the stigma towards mental illness also stems from people’s general terror over the possibility of experiencing it, themselves. It’s pretty distressing to think that your own mind could turn on you and invisibly wreck your life. So how can people with mental disorders, their allies, and mental health professionals help to fight this stigma? Luckily, there are many ways to get involved.

Don’t be glib when talking about mental health topics. Saying “I’m so bipolar” when you change your mind or “This is so depressing” when something doesn’t go your way is dismissive of and disrespectful towards those who actually deal with these conditions. Mental disorders result in a decreased quality of life. They are not personality quirks or shallow traits that come and go.

Be open about your own struggles. Talking about your own feelings and experiences (in a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable) helps to normalize them for yourself and others. Get professional help if you feel it would be beneficial for you. Doing so can motivate others to be open about their own struggles and more likely to seek professional help.

Watch your self-talk. Make sure you do not tell yourself negative things about yourself such as “I’m crazy”, “I’m an awful person”, “Why am I like this?”, etc. Be gentle with yourself, build yourself up, and you’re more likely to do the same for others.

Educate yourself about mental illness. Learn that mental health diagnoses are common and that many people will struggle with mental disorders at some point in their lives. Learn the common triggers, risk factors, and protective factors. Learn the options available to those with mental illness.

Emphasize the connection between physical and mental health. No one stigmatizes physical problems. However, the link between physical and mental health cannot be denied at this point. You cannot have one without the other. Attending to physical problems often necessitates attending to one’s mental health. For example, headaches or body aches are often due to anxiety, fatigue is often due to depression, and insomnia is often due to bipolar disorder.

Focus on people as people, first. People’s mental illnesses shouldn’t define them. Don’t expect, for example, that everyone with bipolar disorder will feel, think, or act the same way or that they all have the same needs. Be careful in your language, as well. Instead of saying “an addict”, say “someone who struggles with addiction”. Instead of saying “a schizophrenic”, say “a person with schizophrenia”. That centers their humanity front-and-center instead of their diagnosis.

Donate time or money to relevant organizations/causes. Organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a 24-hour crisis hotline, or your local domestic violence shelter and free community mental health clinic are worthy causes.

Don’t be judgmental about medication. It is common nowadays for people to demonize psychotropic medications in favor of homeopathic remedies or no substitute at all. While there can be downsides to taking medications, many people depend on medication in order to live a normal life. Never encourage someone to get off their medication without speaking to their psychiatrist. Realize not everybody is on medication for their whole lives and most are eventually able to slowly wean off of them with their doctor’s guidance. Additionally, some people get value out of therapy only after starting meds that relax them enough to be able to concentrate.

The battle to de-stigmatize mental disorders is not new, and there has certainly been progress made. However, there is much more to be done on this score, and the war has not yet been won. It will take those who care enough about the issue to continue to advocate, educate, learn, discuss, and donate what they’re able in order to make lasting improvement.

Should You Pursue a Degree?

It’s an oft-asked question and controversy nowadays: Are degrees “worth it”, and, if so, who should pursue a degree, and when? With the cost of college rising, job requirements becoming stricter, and the amount of required unpaid internships, it’s important that the decision to go to college be a carefully-considered one.

Realize that most degrees do not directly lead to a career. Gone are the days where simply having a bachelors degree in any field would open up worlds to you and make employers go gaga. The degree fields nowadays that most likely will lead to a well-paying career right out of college are known as the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. Now, the common denominator in all of these is math. Even the more science-based fields (chemistry, biology) will require a lot of math courses. Engineering degrees require a lot of advanced math. Unfortunately, the “S” for science does not include social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and political science. It is important to first figure out what you want to do for a career and then consider which degree program will help you reach that goal instead of picking an appealing major and then trying to figure out what you’re going to do with it as you near graduation.

If you don’t go into STEM, you could go into a medical field. Degrees in pre-med, nursing, physical therapy, or respiratory technology are easily transferable to a well-paying job straight after college. However, some of these will require graduate-level degrees. For example, an MD must go to medical school after undergrad and a physical therapist must get a masters or doctorate (depending on the state). A dietetics student must complete a one-year internship (often unpaid) after their bachelors and starting in 2024, they’ll be required to have a masters degree. A job as a mental health counselor requires a masters degree and thousands of hours of post-degree supervised practice before you can even sit for a license. As well, in any of the medical sciences, you still won’t be able to get away from taking hard science, statistics, and math courses. However, if you don’t mind some science and math, there are well-paying medical fields you can enter with an associate’s degree, such as nursing, respiratory technology, dental hygiene, and physical or occupational therapy assisting. Just be aware these associate degree programs are typically highly competitive to enter and will take one full year of math and science pre-requisites before you can enter the program.

If you don’t decide on STEM or the medical field, you could get a degree in a social science, but be prepared to teach. People who get degrees in psychology, English, sociology, etc., generally have a hard time finding a job in their field straight out of college unless they pair it with an education degree or get a doctorate in order to be able to teach at the collegiate level. If you desire to work on the research side of things, you will definitely need a doctorate.

A related issue is that degrees have become highly-specialized. It’s not enough to get a business degree. It needs to be in economics, marketing, or another niche. “Everybody and their mother” now has an MBA, and a lot of schools offer 1-year MBA programs online. The ease of earning the degree is a double-sided sword, as it means more people have access to them, causing saturation in the market and more competition for jobs.

If you don’t have a passion and strong skills for anything specific, it might be more worth your while to learn a trade or earn a certificate in order to become a truck driver, paramedic, or cosmetologist/barber. People in these professions can make a livable wage but don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and 2 or 4 years of their lives preparing them for their chosen occupation. Trades often require apprenticeships, but they are paid. And of course, you can go back for a degree at any time of your life. It’s not uncommon for middle-aged people to earn a degree. Online classes make getting an education at any age or stage of life more feasible and appealing.

Don’t pursue a degree because you’re bored or feeling stuck in life. Take up a hobby, talk with a therapist, apply to different jobs that require the qualifications you have currently. Pursuing a degree should be a logical decision, much like choosing which stocks to buy, route to take while driving, or retirement plan to get. If you’re fascinated with a subject and want to learn more, learn about it for free via the library or take a free online class or workshop. Unless, of course, you have the money and time to sacrifice getting a degree just for fun and you know you won’t ever regret giving up your time and tuition money.

Don’t tie what you do for a living to your identity. What you do for a living doesn’t necessarily say anything about who you are as a person. There are incredibly intelligent people who decide to go into a trade instead of pursuing a degree and people with a modest amount of intelligence who are strong at memorization, good test-takers, and get tutoring throughout college in order to make it through with decent grades.

I know this topic inspires a lot of different thoughts and opinions. I probably could have written an entire doctoral thesis (ironically, haha) on the topic, and I’m sure I missed a lot of good points in this blog post. What are your opinions on the topic? Do you agree with me or are there any points about which you feel otherwise?