March 9, 2017
By Nijah Glenn
We live in quite a time to be alive. As a society, we can boast energy efficient cars; we have the ability to FaceTime our friends continents away, and we can watch the PGA classic from a few years ago via YouTube on silent during a lecture (I have witnessed this, unbelievably). However advanced we are technologically, we have a glaring flaw as a society: the inability to acknowledge mental health without stigma.
Mental disorders are a part of life; quite literally. They are brought on by the chemistry of the human brain, genetics, and environmental factors. Are they frightening? Surely– for those who face both the ramifications of them as well as the stigma of having the disorder. Think of the phrase “mentally ill;” what comes to mind? Is the person you picture young? Old? Academically successful? Financially unstable? Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, but our societal biases do.
In a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the “summary estimate of the prevalence of depression or depressive symptoms among resident physicians was 28.8%, ranging from 20.9% to 43.2% depending on the instrument used, and increased with calendar year” (Mata et al. 2015). It’s rather frightening to think overworked residents who may see you during your ER visit themselves are suffering from depression, not because you are afraid they may not do their job correctly, but that their job is slowly harming them.
Despite the provisions of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act which are meant to protect individuals interviewing for jobs from discrimination based on their mental health, such questions are allowed in board licensing (Carroll 2016). And it is not only an issue by profession. As per the American Psychological Association major depressive disorder affects 14.8 million (6.7% of the population) Americans who are 18 and over, while anxiety affects 18.1% of the population of adults in the United States. Studies from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) note that approximately 25% of the US population has a mental illness.
If one in four Americans has a mental illness, this must mean that we are having open conversations, right? As per the CDC, only 25% of people with mental illnesses interviewed believe that people are “sympathetic and caring to those with mental illnesses”. From the way I’ve watched professors and peers change the way they treat those they deem as “crazy,” from the jokes I’ve heard about peers taking Xanax recreationally while stating that they weren’t “one of those crazy people on drugs,” and from the way professors refused to acknowledge the existence of such disorders, I cannot say such a result is shocking. It does, however, speak volumes about our society.
We cannot advocate for mental health positivity while simultaneously shunning those with disorders ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia. We cannot pretend to be an accepting society, knowing that we treat those with mental disorders differently. The nature of our world is changing. Our lives and lifestyles are uncertain. As things become harder for us as a society, we can bet that people will become more anxious. We can guarantee that more people will have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or depression as the pressure to be perfect from a young age burden our society further, and we can guarantee that people will still be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and a multitude of other disorders. Societies exist in the vein of solidarity and stewardship. Nellie Bly could never have imagined when she went undercover to expose mental health abuses that we would make the advancements we have today, or that we would have a society willing to discuss mental health. However, we still fall short in terms of what our approaches are. People with mental illnesses are not an other; they are our neighbors, our coworkers, our directors, our professors, our cousins, our doctors, ourselves. We must find it in ourselves to be human, and practice empathy rather than scorn. Without empathy, we simply cannot advance.
Nijah Glenn is a senior biology major and dedicated youth activist. She is a TMC board member, a member of the NewPeople editorial collective, avid coffee consumer, literature/film/music critic, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field and world more equitable.
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