If you’ve watched any news recently, the stigma – no, discrimination – against those who suffer from mental illnesses seems to be lifting. In practice, however, this is only the case for the already privileged.
There have certainly been strides in access to adequate and affordable care in the last week, but the measures are simply catching mental health care up to the rest of the healthcare spectrum. In other words, things still aren’t good.
For those paying negligible attention to the issue, it’s easy to exaggerate the progress. The key examples of this hyperbole center around the responses to major celebrities recently confessing that they suffer from mental health conditions. Selena Gomez and Zayn Malik both took time off for anxiety and/or panic attacks. Less recently, Ellie Goulding and Kristen Bell came clean about these same sets of issues. Every time a celebrity tells the public about his or her mental health conditions, he or she is met with undying praise and support (just look at Twitter if you don’t believe me).
This is exactly what the response should be ... but not just for celebrities. A child who suffers from depression should be given a reprieve from schoolwork. A young mother with anxiety should not be condemned for needing assistance from TANF or SNAP. A man with newly-diagnosed schizophrenia should not spend a week in the hospital heavily sedated and be sent home with no further recommendations for treatment.
There are so many more examples that should cause outrage but for some reason, don’t. Is it because mental health conditions happen internally? Is it because non-sufferers can easily ignore sufferers’ subtle cries for help? It is because mental illness scares the general public due to lack of information?
It’s easy to sit around and send condolences when the worst happens, but guilt doesn’t change anything. Retroactively wishing we (non-sufferers, activists, etc.) did more to ease someone’s pain is futile, especially when we chose to ignore the signs or to not offer more help while he or she was in the throes of a mental illness.
Despite well-intentioned efforts to “end the stigma,” suicide rates are at a thirty-year-high. That is outrageous and shocking given the pervasive narrative that things are getting better. Lazy activism undermines the seriousness of the issue. Calling what is so clearly discrimination “stigma” insinuates that free food and t-shirts are enough to garner support for and to fund real policy changes. The people who really need help aren’t the ones going to fun events thrown by organizations that supposedly raise awareness for mental illnesses. That explains the vast disconnect between the perceived and actual reality of the state of mental health care in the United States.
We, as a general public, are so preoccupied with elevating the celebrities who put faces to anxiety disorders that we forget 1) there are other types of mental illness and 2) celebrities aren’t the only people who suffer from mental illnesses. Granted, these celebrities deserve praise for their bravery, but the praise they receive isn’t indicative of a larger societal shift in attitudes toward mental illness or in mental health care.
On top of that, celebrities already have the means to take time off to recuperate. They can afford to be vocal. They can afford to spend some time at a wellness center. They can afford the costs of therapists and medication. By all means, they should use every resource necessary to get better, but we shouldn’t use the ease with which they address and get treatment for their issues as an indication that it is easy for everyone to address and get treatment for mental illnesses. Because it isn’t.
People in places of socioeconomic privilege and in cultures that recognize mental illness as an actual medical problem need care and should get the care they need. People in less privileged circumstances, however, should also have access to that care. Without support systems, people with mentally illnesses end up homeless, in prison-like institutions, or worse. We can’t say we’re making progress in mental health care if the most underprivileged in our society don’t feel that progress.
What would you like to see changed in mental health care? Tell me in the comments. Let’s figure out how we can work together.
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