We Must Stop Trivialising Mental Illness – Or Treating It As Forbidden

This story is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s weekly topic #MentalHealthDay. Share your personal stories of coping with a mental illness, trying to access mental healthcare or any experience with mental health here.

How often do we hear people say they are ‘depressed’ because they feel sad over a professional or personal loss, or say they have ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’ because they like cleanliness and like for things to be organised, or call themselves ‘bipolar’ because they have mood-swings? Quite often.

We also see people calling other people who seem to deviate from behaviour that they would personally see as normal, ‘psychopaths’, or claim that someone they know who takes one too many pictures of themselves is a ‘narcissist’. Thoughtless statements like these that are thrown around often, in day-to-day conversations by a very substantial number of people, reminds us how little we really know about mental illness and the profound effects it has on the people that live with it.

Constantly trivializing mental illness and associating it with everyday, fleeting moments that we all experience due to common external factors like stress or loss, distorts the reality of mental disorders for us and negatively impacts our ability to see the intensity of real disorders – to see the experiences of real sufferers and often, their anguish.

Associating moderate stress with panic attacks that make you feel like you’re having a heart attack, sweat profusely, cause severe anxiety, make you think you’re dying; or associating tidiness with obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes sufferers to have negative, recurring thoughts and compels them to engage in compulsive behaviours to ease the severe anxiety the obsessions cause; or associating feeling sad over a personal or professional loss with a disorder like depression that causes sufferers to have low moods over the period of several months or years and several other symptoms that can push sufferers to suicide; deludes us into believing that these disorders are easy to cope with and accommodate in our lives. We seem to conveniently be ignorant of the life-altering affects these disorders can have on people, severely affecting their emotional well-being and perception of themselves.

So the next time you suffer a loss, say you’re sad. If you like cleanliness say you’re a tidy person. If you’re stressed after a very tiring day, say you are tired. Say your neighbour is weird, not a psychopath, and that you’ve been having mood-swings, not turning bipolar.

We need to stop associating common everyday emotions with mental disorders, because when we do that, we are unintentionally trivialising mental illness. We also need to understand how distorting our perception of mental illness with these associations hurts sufferers and their ability to seek help.

We are also very quick as a society to generalise mental illness and to call anyone with any disorder ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. We are completely unconcerned with the fact that mental illnesses come in different forms and types. We also seem to have complete disregard for the fact that calling sufferers of mental illness crazy or insane is very detrimental to them.

Our idea of dealing with mental illness is not therapy or medication, it is isolating ourselves from the ailing person with the naïve assumption that they might be violent, or a threat to us, or might have a bloodthirst.

Even in popular culture, the portrayal of mental illness is beyond dismaying. Mental illness on screen or in books or in most other media is generally limited to the afflicted being portrayed as either cold-blooded killers because they are ‘crazy’, or as someone who never utters a word and is completely withdrawn from everyday life.

Though there are some excellent movies and books with great and real portrayals of mental disorders, most of them just tend to portray mental illness very poorly. Also, movies tend to sell the idea that people with mental illnesses cannot be helped, that they are beyond help, and the only way to prevent the ‘destruction’ they might leave in their wake is to isolate them from society.

Though fiction, these kinds of portrayals can be severely damaging on our quest to better understand mental illness and accept it. People with mental illness are rarely violent – they are more likely to harm themselves than the people around them.

Living with a mental illness severely deteriorates the quality of your life, and that is something most discussions of mental illness in popular culture overlook. They tend to overlook the impact of mental illness on the sufferers and instead grossly exaggerate its effect on others. This embeds in our collective conscience that sufferers may or may not need help, but we need to be protected from them. This is not only a very misplaced and baseless idea to have, it’s also incredibly detrimental to sufferers.

Apart from the damaging portrayal of mental illness, there is the stigma involving it. The issue of mental illness is so stigmatised that it deters sufferers from seeking professional help. Families try to keep the mental health issues of another family member under wraps, with the fear of being labelled as the ‘crazy person’s family’. Individuals tend not to seek help, lest someone see them as insane or unfit. Universities are more likely to reject a applicant with a previous history of mental illness, lest the illness resurface and affect their performance. Biased and insensitive actions like these always act as a deterrent for those trying to seek help.

The discussion of mental health problems is always brushed under the carpet. Open and healthy discussions are considered awkward or unnecessary. We seem to think that we have all the necessary awareness about mental illness from the movies we watch, or the books we read, which have more often than not proven to be terrible examples of the portrayal of real mental illness.

Interestingly, ‘insanity’ is not even a medical term, it has no meaning or definition within the medical circle. It’s a legal term. Though you can be deemed insane legally if you’ve committed a crime when afflicted by a mental illness that can contribute to acting unreasonably, you cannot be considered insane medically. You could have one of many mental disorders, but insanity isn’t one of them.

Dealing with a mental illness can be excruciatingly hard, but the path to getting better doesn’t have to be a lonely one like it is now. Eliminating negative stereotypes about mental illnesses and having healthy discussions about them – and not being ignorant of them – will help sufferers. Also, if mental illnesses are no longer considered a stigma, and there is awareness about them, more people are likely to get professional help and detail their ordeals.

Mental illness can be crippling, but we can slightly minimise its effect on sufferers by normalising mental illness, understanding their challenges, and encouraging them to get professional help. Though it will only make it slightly better for individual sufferers, our efforts as a society will still count.

Turning mental illness from a forbidden, dark subject to a unfrightening set of conditions that can affect anyone, and need care and treatment, will better the lives of those who are suffering.

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