In my teens I dated a girl, who, for the sake of this essay, shall be called Colleen. I had known her since I was in elementary school and been in love with her since the day I laid eyes on her. Sometime during high school my ticket came up and Colleen and I finally became a couple. She always pops into my mind around this time of year because, since it became possible to track down old chums via social media, she unfailingly wishes me a happy birthday.
I had a specific recollection of her recently, which became highlighted due to the kind of work we do at Idea Engineering. I remembered Colleen once, in a conversation with her mother and me saying, “There are some parts of one’s body that one should be ashamed of.” (Meaning sexual parts.) I remember, even at 17, that seemed a very strange thing to say. And it certainly had an effect on our relationship. But recently, looking back on it, I remembered her mother’s response was so awkward and uncomfortable that she was inadvertently telegraphing that this was a subject preferably avoided — which has the basic ingredients of shame… aka stigma.
What we say and what we don’t; how we react and what we avoid, tells a story to those around us; to our loved ones; to our children; to the world that watches.
And as I recently recalled this incident, I wondered in what other ways she may have uncomfortably approached that general subject matter that left her daughter feeling that it was all rather shameful. - The conversation or actions we do witness is often reflective of many more that we don‘t.
This has all been on my mind as IE has recently been working on a new destigmatization campaign for mental health. For the average person, no matter the words that come out of their mouth, there is an awkward inherent stigma attached to the way we think and talk about mental health. An urge to talk quietly or use euphemisms, but by doing so, the inadvertent effect is to promulgate the stigma.
As I have pointed out in a previous essay, identity is too often attached to talk about mental health issues — “He IS bipolar”; “She IS depressed”— whereas no one would ever say, “He IS cancer.” Such conversational structure suggests that cancer is external to identity and thus potentially transitional, whereas the mental health issue actually is who the person is — and always will be. That brings a level of fear and inescapability that is quite scary.
The truth is that most mental health issues are treatable, many are curable, but the first step on either road is seeking help. Stigma often prevents this; people do not want to discuss their issues and others are loath to bring up the matter with someone they care about who they see struggling.
This has to change. Mental health is inexorably a part of all our bodies' health. It’s not separate, every living person’s brain is attached and wired to the rest of their body. Talking about mental health should be as natural as talking about the flu. (I’d like to say COVID, but let’s leave that sleeping dog alone for this essay…)
I’ve always been a big believer and proponent in the maxim: The Truth Will Set You Free. It may cost you money. It may end a relationship. It might land you behind bars. But the prisons we make for ourselves are always the most haunting, always the ones that eat at us most relentlessly.
It’s time to free our society from the prison of mental health stigma. It’s a gift of freedom you can give to yourself and others. We need to be open to talking about it. We need to be aware of the judgment we ourselves may be carrying about it. We need to demand (via our politicians) that our healthcare organizations treat mental health as part of the whole because much of the stigma of mental health is reflected and driven by insurance companies.
There is a real cost in lives to this issue. Lives needlessly hampered, lives needlessly lost.
What I am most excited about as a fruit from our work in de-stigmatization is that it will create a better atmosphere in which messaging about serious mental illness and suicide prevention can be heard. Because when people avoid talking about mental health, they stop listening also. Signs are missed, help is not offered. Who would not say to a friend who has bleary eyes and a hoarse throat, “you don’t look or sound well.” Because of stigma, far fewer will address the behavior of a loved one with potential mental health challenges. And much like untreated hypertension can lead to a heart attack, untreated mental health issues can become serious. Reducing stigma can move treatment upstream, before certain mental health issues become serious and perhaps suicidal.
As the mental health profession prepares itself for an expected tsunami of COVID-driven mental health issues in the coming year, encouraging people to be more introspective and aware of their own mental health and fitness and that of their loved ones is more important than ever.
Let’s practice mental fitness for ourselves and encourage it in others.