Home Featured News ‘You’re Not Depressed’ The Dangers of Downplaying Mental Health

‘You’re Not Depressed’ The Dangers of Downplaying Mental Health

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By Brandon Smith

When someone is sick or injured, they go to the doctor. Maintaining our physical health is normal. That’s what everyone is expected to do, so why does it feel different for mental health?

In a 2021 study from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it was estimated that around 22.8% of all American adults live with any mental illness, with impairments ranging from none, to moderate, to severe. That’s approximately 57.8 million people. To put it into perspective, NIMH estimates that one in every five Americans live with a mental illness.

Now, of that number, only 1 in every 10 people is going to therapy, speaking with a counselor, or taking prescription medication.

Despite advances in mental health acceptance, a startling number of Americans still refuse to seek treatment or even acknowledge mental health concerns. This is a result of long-held societal beliefs that mental illness should be hidden away in favor of maintaining a public façade.

“You weren’t really allowed to talk about (mental health),” says Roman Burgler, a 34-year-old Nursing major. He told The Collegiate that he experienced the stigma against mental health when he was growing up in Grand Rapids. “You got made fun of if you did talk about it, and no one really wanted to hear it. They were just like ‘suck it up.’”

Mental health is one of the most important aspects of one’s daily life, so why do we downplay it so often? Why does the subject feel so restricted?

The Stigma Behind Mental Health

Despite mental illness existing for all of human history, it has only begun to receive proper attention in recent years.

Although the subject of therapy is becoming less taboo, there are still communities with more traditional mindsets who continue to stigmatize the subject of mental illness. Instead of providing a socially-accepted avenue for people to seek treatment, these communities instead take the approach of trying to “conceal” mental health problems. That means telling depressed people to “smile more,” punishing bipolar teens for “acting out,” and calling people “selfish” when their anxiety makes others uncomfortable. For the ones on the receiving end of that treatment, it discourages them from seeking necessary help out of fear of looking weak.

“I think there is a big stigma against mental health even still, as accepting as it has become,” says Sierra Van Antwerp, a 21-year-old Business Administration major from Northeast Grand Rapids. Van Antwerp has struggled in the past to find mental health resources, and today she believes that mental healthcare is extremely important. “Among the younger population, there’s still the after-effects of older generations where that wasn’t as talked about or communicated as freely.”

There are several important factors that contribute to the stigma around mental health. These factors are based mainly on the environment and societal expectations around identity. Some groups are pressured not to seek mental health treatment because of the mindset in the area they live in, others are unable to because treatment is not available in their area, and still others are expected to just “deal with it” based on their identities. While the stigma around mental health will not magically vanish anytime soon, understanding what causes that stigma can help people who need help to finally overcome it.

In more traditional locations, mental healthcare may not be accepted.

Rural Americans in particular are often disincentivized from seeking treatment for a variety of reasons. In a study from the National Rural Health Association, the four major factors keeping people away from mental healthcare are accessibility, availability, affordability, and acceptability.

Accessibility is an issue because rural Americans often have to travel long distances to seek treatment and low availability means that there can be a shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas. And when people can find providers in rural areas, affordability can become a barrier when some rural Americans cannot afford the out-of-pocket cost for treatment or their health insurance is less likely to recognize a mental illness. All of it comes back to acceptability, with many still grappling with the stigma around mental healthcare.

According to the NAMI, over 25 million rural Americans were living in Mental Health Professional shortage areas in 2020, meaning that they were unable to get mental health treatment. Among U.S. adults in nonmetropolitan areas who needed treatment, less than half were able to receive it. Compared to suburban and urban Americans, people in rural areas are expected to travel twice as far to receive treatment, and they are twice as likely to lack broadband internet connection, limiting their options for online treatment. Even worse, rural youths are at an increased risk of suicide, yet rural areas also lack as many youth suicide prevention services.

Despite lacking as many different mental healthcare resources, some rural areas do have a sense of community that leads to positive support networks.

“My friends who lived in more rural and lower-class families tended to help each other more,” Burgler said. “They were just like ‘well, talk about it’… whereas white suburbia is more ‘well, this is how we have to look. This is how we must appear to everybody even though everything is broken.’”

Depending on the predominant attitude in rural communities and considering the lack of mental health resources, many rural Americans lack the same support network that their urban counterparts may have.

Gossip can scare people away from seeking mental healthcare

One of the biggest contributing factors to the stigma against mental healthcare is gossip. In more tight-knit communities, such as those in small towns or close suburban neighborhoods, the lack of privacy and fear that neighbors will gossip disincentivizes people from seeking mental health treatment.

“Word gets around a lot faster (in smaller communities),” says Van Antwerp, “so if someone is different from the group, everyone knows.”

Burgler recalled a time when he felt that he couldn’t open up. 

“(It feels) alienating, lonesome,” Burgler said, adding that it “makes you feel like you have nowhere else to go and nobody to talk to. So you’re left with very few, if any, options.”

In urban areas, where the crowds are so big that blending in is second nature, it is easier to swim against the stigma without feeling ostracized. However, in communities where everyone is familiar with their neighbors, gossip has a tendency to spread faster and cause more damage, worsening one’s mental state.

Overcoming gossip can be the most intimidating part of overcoming the stigma against mental health. When you’re the focus of gossip, you feel like you’re under a spotlight to be scrutinized by all, which makes it much harder to be honest and admit that you need help.

Toxic masculinity leads to a damaging bias against mental health

Another factor is toxic masculinity. While some would define toxic masculinity as the idea that “alpha male” influencers have shamed men into bottling up their feelings to appear less vulnerable, some men may see it differently. Those men instead hear the words “toxic masculinity” and perceive it as a scolding finger pointing at them, telling them, “Men and boys are the problem. You are the problem.” These men shield themselves and dig deeper into the very mindset that is dragging them down.

“I mean, it’s the stigma that we were raised with,” says Burgler. “When I was younger, you had to have muscles, you had to prove yourself, be brave, and never say that you’re sad or cry because that was what men did.”

As a result, the CDC reports that men commit suicide almost three times more then women. At the same time, women feel more comfortable reaching out for mental health support, getting treatment at a rate of around 25% in 2020 while only 14.6% of men did the same. This is indicative of the stereotype of the “strong man” who feels uncomfortable receiving treatment as a result of the stigma around mental health.

“I think of men who have been shamed into hiding themselves,” Van Antwerp explains. “I think that leads to, in toxic masculinity, compartmentalizing your feelings in order to kinda bottle them away so you can appear strong or stoic.”

Struggles with mental health become harder in marginalized communities

Despite major steps forward in the 2010’s, the LGBTQ+ community has faced significant adversity in recent years due to hostile politicization. LGBTQ+ youth in particular are at an increased risk, as they face stigmatization for not only their mental health, but their sexuality as well.

According to NAMI, LGBTQ+ adults are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition. This is coupled with the fact that LGBTQ+ youth are also twice as likely to report experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”.

While there have been steps forward societally to encourage coming out and promote acceptance, the LGBTQ+ community continues to face discrimination or worse: rejection. In GLAAD’s annual “Accelerating Acceptance” survey for 2022, they discovered that 70% of LGBTQ+ Americans report experiencing discrimination. For comparison, that number was at 59% in 2021, only a year prior. Not only that, but the discrimination can stem from school, work, or even their own homes. For some, it can be disheartening when their own family refuses to accept them.

Many believe that family is a support network and one of the most important tenets to good mental health. However, when someone feels rejected by their own family, they may feel compelled to hide away that part of themselves that leads to ostracization. This then makes it more difficult to seek mental health care. When fighting against the stigma of one’s own identity, it makes it even more difficult to face the stigma against seeking mental healthcare.

Bad experiences with mental health professionals can discourage further treatment

When it comes to actually receiving treatment, many people have a bad experience with a school counselor or disinterested therapist that discourages them from trying to find someone better.

“Growing up, I’ve always had issues with mental health,” says Skylar Peck, a 19-year-old from Middleville. “I tried to cope with it the best way that I knew how, but my friends and family always helped.”

Reaching out for support is hard enough, but if someone manages to muster up the courage to see a therapist, it can be damaging if the therapist makes them feel unheard. It can be even worse if they feel that the therapist or counselor is outright antagonistic. When Peck was seeking mental health treatment in high school, she began with the school itself.

“Nothing that I felt comfortable with was offered by the school. Not people that I trusted to talk to,” Peck says. “A lot of the school counselors were difficult to talk to. And they were talking to so many different students, so it didn’t feel like they were focused on one person.”

Van Antwerp has had a similar experience.

“Anytime I would bring up an issue, (the counselor) would be very dismissive and kinda just say, ‘suck it up, buttercup,’ basically,” recalled Van Antwerp. “I ended up trying a couple different people. I finally found someone that I really connect with, but the first couple people weren’t quite meeting my needs.”

At GRCC, counseling services are offered by the Counseling and Career Development department. They provide mental health services five days a week, both in-person and virtual. Individual therapy and off-campus referrals are available, in addition to urgent support for students who experience  a mental health emergency on campus.

“It takes a certain degree of vulnerability to really reach out and say ‘Hey, I need help’,” says Melissa Ware, the Counseling and Career Development Director. Ware recently met with The Collegiate staff to address student mental health concerns. 

“Everyone has different experiences…” Ware said. “We all come from a lot of different backgrounds, so I don’t know what’s being said about mental health in their family and in their community.”

The Importance of Mental Healthcare

While the stigma around mental health has been addressed in recent years, the fact remains that not everyone feels comfortable opening up about their problems. Mental health can affect anybody, of any race, sex, age, or background, so why do some groups feel unable to open up?

“(Mental healthcare is) extremely important,” Peck said. “Humans need to have a set mind in order to function throughout the day.”

“When mental health is on the decline, it impacts everything you do,”  Van Antwerp agrees. “I think as we progressively make it more acceptable and more candid, straightforward, about addressing it, and the importance of it, I think gradually the stigma around it will decrease, if not cease completely. That won’t be a few years or decades from now, but give it maybe a few generations, several generations, and I think we’ll be making progress.”

Burgler stressed the importance of individuals prioritizing their mental health. 

“I don’t think there is anything that you can do that is more important,” Burgler said.

“And whether you know it or not, that one smile that you might give somebody else, that one extra bit of strength you might have, might make somebody’s day,” Burgler said, pausing. “You just don’t know what anyone else is going through.”

In any case, while some groups are learning to open up about mental health problems and others are gradually working to reduce the stigma, it must be made clear to anybody that, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, it is okay to reach out. It is okay to ask for help.

It is okay to not be okay.

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