Breaching the Stigma: Improving Mental Health Education
Amanda – Maryland
Author’s Note: First names have been changed
I will never forget the day that Carrie died.
I was sitting on a bench after school in late November, perusing Instagram on my phone as I waited for my mom to pick me up. The first post on my timeline caught my attention: a yearbook photo of Carrie, a classmate from middle school, posted by one of her friends. Its caption read simply, “Love and miss you, Carrie.” The next post was along the same lines: another picture of Carrie from another one of her friends, this time with the caption, “We will never forget you.”
Until the facts were spelled out in front of me, it never occurred to me that Carrie had committed suicide. A sophomore in high school at the time, I considered myself well-versed in the topic of mental health from years of Health class education. Yet, my brain couldn’t make the connection between Carrie and the classical depression symptoms I learned in Health class. Carrie was popular, smart, and outwardly, so happy. The warning symptoms I had been taught to look for—loss of energy, self-loathing, reckless behavior—just didn’t seem to match up. Maybe I did not have such a complete understanding of mental health, after all.
As an Asian-American, I feel the stigma against mental disorders like an unspoken yet ever-present weight. In a country that often treats white as default and minorities as afterthoughts, minorities seem to have no choice but to be perfect. Admitting to mental health disorders is, unfortunately, still seen as a sign of failure. To combat this stigma, society must treat mental illnesses as seriously as it does physical illnesses.
No physical illness invites as much shame and social stigma as mental illnesses do. When a person is afflicted with the flu or breaks a bone, it is expected that he or she will receive adequate medical treatment. Misconceptions of mental health, however, lead many to believe that mental illnesses can simply be cured by cheering up or trying harder. A large part of this issue is a lack of education on the subject of mental health. Mental illness is often seen as the victim’s fault, when in reality, it is generally caused by uncontrollable chemical imbalances in the brain. Research has suggested that people who have depression, for example, have unbalanced levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Scientific progress has allowed for the development of drugs that treat patients by blocking the neurotransmitter glutamate or regulating hormone levels. To keep pace with these scientific developments, Biology and Health curriculums in schools should be updated to teach mental illnesses as they do physical illnesses, covering the scientific causes, effects, and possible treatments available. Recognizing mental health disorders as illnesses will both decrease the stigma against them and allow teenagers to better understand the resources available to them. Students should be taught the warning signs of depression, but they should also understand that like any health disease, mental illnesses do not always exhibit textbook symptoms. Just because Carrie did not show obvious suicidal signs did not mean she did not need help.
The scientific community may have a better understanding of mental health now than ever before, but none of it matters if teenagers feel too ashamed recognize when they need help. First-generation Asian-Americans—the model minorities—typically face external pressures to succeed. Our parents worked so hard to immigrate to America for us to have better lives; it only makes sense for us to pay it back to them by reaching society’s outward standards of success. Admitting to mental illness can feel like we are ungrateful for our parents’ sacrifices. Asian culture tends to undervalue soft skills such as communication and social-emotional; it is often seen as more respectable to keep negative emotions silent than to bring them to the light. It sometimes feels as if my Asian-American peers and I are all ducks—calm on the surface, but paddling frantically under the surface just to stay afloat. Many of us experience the same struggles, but each of us believes we are alone if we keep silent about it. Students should be taught the importance of all emotions, good and bad. It is just as important to experience and acknowledge negative feelings as it is positive ones; the danger lies in suppressing negative emotions or feeling shame for having them.
Social media platforms often exacerbate detrimental comparisons among adolescents: since people generally post about their best moments, it can seem to each of us like we are alone in our hardships. This feeling of isolation can contribute to more shame and stigma against the topic of mental illness. However, social media does not have to be a negative force. Many famous influencers, including celebrities like J.K. Rowling and Michael Phelps, have opened up their own experiences with mental illness. Seeing successful people overcome mental illness can uplift teenagers and encourage them to seek the help they need. Public figures should continue to use their platforms to promote mental health awareness.
Schools can also improve the mental health resources available to students as well as awareness of those that already exist. Many schools have begun to implement school-wide efforts to raise awareness about mental health. My high school hosts relaxing activities during lunch time throughout May for Mental Health Awareness Month, where students can mold clay and hula-hoop with counselors to relieve stress; during homeroom class, we watch mental health PSAs and presentations. While these large-group activities are excellent ways to start a conversation, they usually only start impersonal, surface-level conversations about mental health. Furthermore, these activities should not only occur in May. Having more intimate “mental health study circles” of around four to five students and their counselor throughout the school year would encourage deeper conversations that facilitate understanding of mental health. I also only recently learned that every high school in my county has a certified psychologist for students to talk to. Upon talking to my peers, I realized that most of my classmates were also unaware that this was an option available to them. Schools should inform students of all mental health resources available so that they can to take full advantage of them. Also, just as health pamphlets come in different languages to increase accessibility, mental health PSAs and presentations should be available in languages besides English. Language classes could be given the assignment to translate mental health presentations for the school.
After Carrie’s death, my community began discussing mental health issues more openly. Schools began organizing suicide prevention workshops and my peers began posting links to mental health resources. But it should not have taken a tragedy for us to start the conversation. Carrie should have never died, and the fact that she did reflects a failure of our society to provide adequate education about mental health. This issue will not be solved by a single Health class lesson or PSA. Rather, it will require an ongoing effort and a shift in attitude to reduce the stigma against mental health and allow patients to receive the help they need.