Why Mental Health Has Become Political

I'd like to explain why, as a magazine focused on the health and wellness of women, this is a conversation we need to be having.
05/31/2017 11:25 am ET Updated May 31, 2017

Last week, Women’s Health posted on Instagram about the newly proposed health care bill. Were it to pass in its current state, we said, the 51 percent of women with pre-existing conditions could be priced out of insurance. We shared photos of our editors, including myself, holding signs listing our pre-existing conditions.

A few opened up about physical issues such as heart murmurs, blood clots, and migraines. Others mentioned mental ones, including anxiety and depression. I held a sign that mixed both: “OCD & C-section.”

The post led to a lively debate. Some women applauded with words of thanks, clapping emojis, and their own pre-existing conditions.

But others questioned why we, Women’s Health, had a political post in our feed. “I love you guys, but health is not a political forum,” wrote one. Some commented on, and even questioned the validity of, our health issues themselves. More pointedly, our mental health issues.

OCD “is not a disease. It’s simply you’re a control freak,” one woman wrote; another asked why several of our editors were admitting to being depressed or having anxiety, saying, “It’s kind of embarrassing for the mag to show all that.”

With due respect to all Women’s Health readers and their opinions, I’d like to explain why, as a magazine focused on the health and wellness of women, this is a conversation we need to be having.

First: Health has become political. And if you have any kind of pre-existing condition—including a mental one—there is reason for concern. The Affordable Care Act (aka the ACA, aka Obamacare) was not a perfect law, by any means. But one positive change it made was to require, by federal law, that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions, both physical and mental. The new bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) is undergoing revisions, but in its current iteration, states could receive several worrisome waivers that might result in insurers raising premiums to a point where people with mental-health issues are unable to afford treatment or medication.

One of the key critiques of the ACA was that insurance premiums across the board went up. But they went up less overall then than they would go up, under the new bill, specifically for people with serious health issues. For example, the Center for American Progress estimates that someone with a major depressive disorder could face a 208 percent price increase if the AHCA were to pass in its current state.

As for Women’s Health editors sharing their own mental-health diagnoses, I feel saddened that anyone would consider this “embarrassing.” This type of thinking leads to stigma that actually makes mental conditions worse, even physically. Women with mental illnesses have an increased risk for chronic medical conditions such as osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s, lost earnings—a collective $193.2 billion a year—and a high incidence of suicide.

These illnesses are real, and brushing sufferers off as self-indulgent or weak can lead women to blame themselves for a health problem that experts say they have no more control over than if they had a heart condition or cancer.

The other thing experts say, quite unanimously? The first best way to fight mental-health stigma is being open about our own conditions. It’s why Women’s Health is dedicated to speaking out and changing attitudes toward mental health.

This year, we’ve launched a campaign called #HowIReallyFelt. It’s tied to our recent story on “smiling depression,” and the similar type of anxiety, in which individuals put on a false front to hide symptoms. In an exclusive survey with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), we found that nearly 20 percent of women said the internal stigma they felt about their depression or anxiety led them to share a photo on social media where the caption didn’t match what they were actually feeling. So we’re asking women to push back against stigma by reposting their own photos and re-captioning them on Instagram using the hashtag #HowIReallyFelt.

As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, I encourage discussion about mental illness, and health care in general, from both sides of the political spectrum. But I hope that we, as women, can help lift each other up during that conversation—and realize that the end goal is better treatment for all of us. As one reader on that Instagram post so aptly put it: “This is a great way to have a conversation that will affect women from all walks of life. Conservative or liberal, we should be able to discuss women’s health as WOMEN. I’m pretty sure we all agree that we want full coverage at a reasonable price.”

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