If you type “mentally ill” into your Google search bar, suggestions that appear include “mentally ill in prison,” “mentally ill homeless,” and “mentally ill school shooters.” This link between mental illness and undesirable characteristics is an example of mental illness stigma, or a general negative perception of the mentally ill.
Mental health is a person’s overall psychological wellbeing; when a mental health problem begins to affect an individual’s thoughts and actions, it can be classified as a mental illness. Although mental illnesses are both treatable and common (with one in five American adults experiences some form of it each year), people view it very differently than physical illness.
“Obviously, the one big difference is that you can’t see it,” psychologist Lindsay Trent reasoned. “When you have a broken arm, you can see there’s a compound fracture and the bone is sticking out. Whenever you have a mental illness… it’s not tangible or medically measurable, and there’s a lot of confusion as to what exactly to measure.”
Stigma arises from this confusion, combined with poor media representation and gross generalizations, all of which reinforce the idea that mental illness is socially unacceptable.
“A lot of times, stigma is a result of fear,” commented Annie Blaine, a representative from the Bring Change 2 Mind mental health awareness organization. “People don’t know how to talk about mental health, and so they get scared, and it’s something that remains in the dark. I also think stigma comes from misconceptions and glamorized depictions of mental illness on TV and in the media… there are different causes.”
Psychologist, professor, and author Stephen Hinshaw, who grew up in a family silenced by stigma, pointed out that stigma does not always begin with malicious intent.
“[Stigma] starts with everyday social cognition,” Hinshaw explained. “We all have to stereotype just to keep straight who’s who… But then that can lead to prejudice, and we might discriminate… What does discrimination lead to? Genocide. Torture.”
Unlike group identity movements such as gay pride and Black Lives Matter, few are proud to associate themselves with a group that society has deemed “lunatics.” Those with a mental illness learn to internalize this stigma; rather than reaching out for support, many fear social ostracization and instead conceal their condition, which only leads to further psychological detriments.
“Stigma means that everything about you is your mental illness,” Hinshaw added. “You’re not an individual anymore. It’s dehumanizing.”
Although sophomore Colby Peck believes that Woodside does provide helpful resources for those with a mental illness, she feels there is still room for improvement in terms of social acceptance.
“Mental health to me is something that’s of great importance, as it’s affected me and some of my family members’ life and overall health for years,” remarked Peck. “[Stigma] makes you feel as if you’re isolated, and people with a mental illness need a lot of support and understanding.”
Despite an increase in factual knowledge about mental health, public attitudes toward mental illness have barely shifted; in fact, three times as many people associate mental illness with violence in comparison to 1995, and the mentally ill are one of the three least accepted groups in modern society (along with the homeless and those who abuse substances).
“You have to have education around mental health in order for people to understand what exactly these diseases are,” Blaine insisted. “But I feel if people aren’t talking about their personal experiences… then stigma still persists, because reading something in a book in a classroom is very different from having a conversation with somebody about a personal experience or something they might be going through.
Hinshaw similarly supports the use of personal stories and believes that to counter stigma, society needs to see the human behind a mental illness.
“Book learning is great, but it’s the emotional learning that really determines how you view yourself,” Hinshaw agreed. “The thing we probably don’t want to do is just go in to health classes and teach facts about mental illness… We need to tell our stories and humanize.”
Peck also noted that in order to normalize mental illness, individuals must stop using it as a form of derogatory slang.
“[People] use words such as, ‘Oh my god, why is she so bipolar?’ and don’t actually realize the full extent of the problem,” Peck recalled. “To counter stigma is to just realize what you’re saying and how it can affect somebody around you, someone who you may not even know has a mental illness.”
As teenagers today foster more open discussions about mental illness, Peck, Trent, Hinshaw, and Blaine all agree that the future of mental health acceptance is hopeful.
“I think that younger generations have less stigma around mental health and will help create awareness… in order for [mental illness] to be something that everybody talks about,” Blaine predicted. “And, if they demand better resources, I think that supply will have to appear.”
Following a recent teen suicide, a new Woodside club, Bring Change 2 Mind, aims to promote awareness of mental health issues in an effort to proactively prevent deaths within the Woodside community.
Holly Spalletta, a freshman at Sequoia High School, took her own life last month. Despite the growing rate of suicides in the United States, conversations about mental health are rare. Bring Change 2 Mind is a nonprofit organization that sponsors high school clubs throughout California in hopes of erasing stigma and educate students on mental illness, an issue that many students recognize as important.
“I believe it is very valuable to discuss mental health because a lot of people either don’t believe that mental illness is an issue or don’t believe it is real,” Vianne Nickel, a sophomore at Woodside, states.
Omar Bravo, a Woodside sophomore, agrees with Nickel, and thinks that mental health is much less visible than it should be.
“I think Woodside should talk more about mental health because I don’t really see that much of it. I don’t really hear much about it, and I think it is an important topic,” he adds.
Some students argue that the negative effect of the lack of discussion about mental health can cause them to delay getting help because of the stigma surrounding the issue.
“I think that stigma doesn’t allow students to reach out when they need help because it feels so shameful to them, or they feel like they will be perceived as weak, especially by teachers, staff, or even their own peers,” Oriana Smith-Anderson, the secretary of the Bring Change 2 Mind club, says.
Caden Hansen, a Woodside sophomore, is the president of the organization’s newly-formed Woodside chapter. Caden’s experience reflects Smith-Anderson’s ideas about stigma.
“For me personally, I’ve had a lot of experience navigating mental health care and my own interactions with illnesses,” Hansen says. “For the past six years of my life, or so, I’ve been struggling with suicidal ideation, but because of the stigma I wasn’t comfortable coming forward. [The stigma] was really harmful in the end for me, and if I had been able to come forward sooner, I feel like my journey for recovery would have gone a lot faster and been a lot simpler.”
Some Silicon Valley schools already offer resources to students for their mental health such as Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Following the suicides of several Gunn students over the past few years, the school is working to address the damaging stigma around mental health.
“Once a week we have a class called Social Emotional Learning where they give us tips for time management, stress control, studying, et cetera,” a student at Gunn, who asked to remain anonymous, reveals.
Although Woodside already provides some mental health services including therapy and counselors, the Bring Change 2 Mind club plans to teach Woodside students about some of the same principles addressed in Gunn High School’s Social Emotional Learning class through positive messages and help for students who need to talk about mental health. The leaders of the Bring Change 2 Mind club are working on a possible freshman transition lesson that may go into effect next year as well as a survey to collect demographics.
“[By] starting Bring Change 2 Mind, I hope I’m able to help raise this awareness for other people and create an environment where people are comfortable with their experiences and coming forward in general so that there are less harmful impacts in the future,” Hansen concludes.