Mental Illness: An Overdue Conversation


Opinion General Cover Photo

Joelle Conway


A simple act of kindness has been proven to save lives.

My friend, JJ, from high school was an outgoing, peppy cheerleader who always kept a huge smile on her face. However, underneath the persona, JJ had known her whole life that she was different from other people. She had what she called “demons” inside her head that never seemed to leave and told her that she was worthless, ugly and a disappointment. She had told her two close friends a brief explanation of the pain she felt inside. Responses varied from “you probably shouldn’t tell very many people that,” to “people will think you’re weird if they find that out,” and even “well, aren’t you going to go to a doctor so you can be normal again?” The more JJ thought about her abnormal feelings, the more she wanted to ask for help. JJ started counseling with a strong push from her parents.

After a period of time, JJ’s depression evolved into a greater being that began to consume her ability to function. Thoughts of ending her life to rid the pain became more and more prevalent. On November 8, 2013, her death wish became a temporary reality. Following JJ’s close encounter with fatality, she decided that she needed and wanted to get better. She was admitted into a psychiatric hospital that night. Nobody from her home town was supposed to find out where she actually was. However, living in the small town that she lived in, the truth escaped and everyone knew that she had tried to take her own life. She returned to school thinking everything would be completely normal; she thought no one would have noticed she was gone for a few days.

Upon her return, JJ’s peers continuously joked about her killing herself, called her a freak, asked how her stay in “the looney bin” was and even said she did it all for attention. JJ was shunned and made to feel ashamed of her mental illness. Her friends did not see the way that classmates behaved toward her. They insinuated that JJ was exaggerating and that no one treated her any differently. One friend even said that JJ had brought it upon herself by being admitted into the “psych ward.” First, JJ was ridiculed for not wanting help for her mental illness, and then, she was made fun of for accepting psychiatric treatment. JJ began to feel as though her life would have been better off if she would have just continued drowning in her mental illness rather than asking to receive mental health services. JJ’s story is one of many horrible results of the stigma against mental illness. Mental illness stigma is very real and prevalent in society. 

For some, mental illness is such a broad, confusing concept. Defining what exactly is a mental illness is ambiguous to many. Mayo Clinic informs the public about the fact that the general term “mental illness” refers to a “wide range of conditions that can affect mood, thinking, and behavior.” More prevalent mental illnesses include depression, anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder (Mayo). 

In addition, a common misconception of psychiatric disorders is that, just because a person has a bad day, that makes them depressed. Mental illness is only diagnosed as such whenever the mental health symptoms carry on over a prolonged period (Mayo). Proper diagnosing of an illness leads to appropriate treatment. Without treatment, mental illness can rapidly decline a person’s health state. Those who suffer from mental illness commonly struggle with more than just their psychiatric disorder. Patrick W. Corrigan and Amy C. Watson explain that mental health service users must work on overcoming their disease while also dealing with the stigma and stereotyping against mental illness from society (Corrigan). Accompanying the increase in diagnoses of psychiatric disorders, negative viewpoints against people who have mental illnesses have also increased.

The definition of a stigma is “when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype)” (Mayo). Furthermore, mental illness stigma is someone viewing a person with a mental illness in an unfavorable light. Stigma against mental illness conjures up a variety of emotions, such as shame, blame, hopelessness and distress for those being targeted (The Government). A possible answer to why mental illness is stigmatized by society is simply because many fear what they don’t know. With the lack of public education on psychiatric disorders, it makes sense that people fear mental illness simply because they are not informed. Many people express their fear of the unknown by acting in harmful, offensive and just plain mean manners to mask their own vulnerability. This fear later insinuates itself into a stigma against virtually the entire realm of mental health issues. Coinciding with stigma, discrimination against those with mental illness is also a prevalent issue in society. 

Mayo Clinic’s website reports that discrimination can be either direct or indirect. One example of direct discrimination would be a person voicing a derogatory comment about mental illness in general or a person who has a mental illness. On the other hand, an illustration of indirect discrimination would include avoidance (Mayo).These discriminating attitudes represent a barrier to treatment-seeking people because of the fear of a judgmental society finding out about their mental illness. The likelihood of a person opening up about their mental health decreases upon witnessing or receiving backlash based on their disorder (Mayo). Any discrimination, whether it be deemed minuscule or substantial, is inadmissible and impacts an individual suffering from a psychiatric condition in an abundance of ways that fail to be able to be described concisely on paper. 

Mental health should be important to every person. Taking care of yourself mentally, physically and emotionally benefits one’s outlook on life, social relationships, perception of self and much more! Stress is a part of life. Healthy coping skills provide a person with tools to help deal with stressful situations. Exercise is a great coping skill and benefits your overall health! Taking care of your physical health is one way to improve mental health. Here are some tips for better physical health: frequent exercise, which releases endorphins; proper nutrition; getting a healthy amount of sleep; avoiding harmful substances, such as cigarettes or excessive alcohol intake and drinking eight cups of water each day. 

Having a positive support system can also help mental health. “People with strong family or social connections are generally healthier than those who lack a support network” (UHS). Investing yourself in a hobby, journaling, hanging out with loved ones, being outside or playing with a pet are other mechanisms for relieving stress. Although it may sound corny, meditation is an excellent way to quiet the mind. If meditating isn’t your thing, try mindfulness or relaxation exercises to help calm yourself. The final piece of advice: seek help when you need it. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Despite the stigma surrounding mental illness, seeking help increases the likelihood of successful treatment of the disorder. Mental health professionals can help steer you in the right direction, whether that be therapy or medication.

According to Mayo Clinic, upon diagnosis from a clinician, people felt a sense of relief to understand what was going on with their mind (Mayo). Mental illness is often an imbalance of chemicals in the brain—NOT a personal incompetence. Receiving appropriate mental health care assists individuals in recovery and helps one live life to the fullest. Recovery is a journey that does not happen overnight. However, there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel. This is an important social problem with an impact on individuals with mental illness and comes at cost to society, and it needs to be handled as such. The people of the world can only change society if they change themselves first. 

The ostrich who buries its head in the sand still has to confront and acknowledge its issues. Pretending mental illness doesn’t exist won’t make it *poof* disappear. Battling the discrimination and stigma against mental illness starts with merely talking about it. “The more hidden mental illness remains, the more people continue to believe that it is shameful and needs to be concealed” (The Government). By just talking about it more, people can feel more open to bringing it up. The more conversations society has about mental illness, the more likely shame against talking about the topic will subside.

In the same manner, the labeling of persons with a psychiatric disorder needs to be stopped. Often, judgement and stereotyping coincide with labeling a group of people (The Government). By simply rewording a sentence from “she is schizophrenic” to “she has schizophrenia” can make a difference in the perception of those with these illnesses. Let me say it louder for the people in the back: mental illness does not define who a person is. If you hear someone making fun of someone with a mental illness or mental illness in general, put an end to it. Just saying “Hey, that’s not cool.” Or “Cut it out” can make a difference and perhaps help that person not say inconsiderate comments like that anymore.

You’ve heard it since you were in Kindergarten: “The Golden Rule—Treat people how you want to be treated”. Combating stigma is as simple as that. Would you like it if you were told to “stop looking for attention”? Would it hurt your feelings if someone downplayed your feelings and told you that “it can’t be that bad”? People need to take a step back and look at the situation through the other person’s eyes before they act in a potentially harsh, offensive manner. In a perfect world, each person we interact with would be nice, kind, considerate, mindful, generous and more. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Therefore, it is up to us and each individual person to make the world a better, more accepting place for those with a mental illness and everybody else. 

A simple act of kindness has been proven to save lives, says a study done by PsychUStudies. Self-harm and panic attacks are less likely to happen to a person if someone had, for example, told them to have a good day, given a friendly hug, pat them on the back, made them laugh or even gave a compliment like “Dannggggg, you’re looking good today.” Even a smile could brighten someone’s mood. You never know what people are going through by just looking at them. Sometimes those struggling with a mental illness seem “fine” on the surface. No matter the case, ask your loved ones how they are doing. Simply showing others that you care for them can affect their mood and self-esteem. 

Mental health should be a conversation for everybody, not solely those with a mental illness. Being empathetic and kind to others may improve your, and their, outlook on life. Before passing judgement onto a person, remember that every single individual is going or has gone through something greater than what you know. Rather than ridiculing, try having a conversation with the person. Choosing kindness over hatefulness is the start to bettering society. “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all” was said by an unknown author. It is up to the people of society to make the change, and to make this world a better place for everybody on this planet. 

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Are Bipolar Disorders? Retrieved from

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (n.d.). Suicide Statistics. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic.Mayo Foundation for Medical Education                        and Research, 2014. Web. 17 May 2014. 

The Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission.Government of Western                       Australia, 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2016.

Corrigan, Patrick W. and Amy C. Watson. “Understanding the impact of stigma on people with      mental illness.” World Psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 2002. Web. 21 Apr. 2016.