How our dialogue plays a role in addressing this societal crisis
Just a month ago, my high school held its first-ever mental health assembly, weeks before the end of the school year. An animated PowerPoint featuring caricatures of a cartoonish brain told us that we were enough, we were supported, and we were seen. We watched videos of celebrities, public figures, and even students who looked like us preaching the importance of checking in on our friends and classmates. “One question is all it takes,” someone emphasized. “You never know what’s going on in their life.” Which made me wonder days after the assembly: why has it taken us so long to address this?
Mental health is far from an easy topic. In fact, we go so far that we not only ignore it, but we poke fun at it sometimes as well. After the assembly, I overheard several peers mimicking someone who might be reaching out to a suffering friend. “Only losers struggle with mental health,” another said. Although dismissive, these remarks actually signify a larger problem in our society: the stigma around discussing and treating mental health. I fear that we display negative social attitudes towards people who seek out treatment for emotional distress or mental illnesses, and by doing so, we radicalize the idea of feeling this way ourselves. Feeling “okay” or even happy all the time has become normalized, when in reality humans experience a multitude of emotions everyday—sometimes several at a time.
Such a stigma stems from stereotypes of people who have traditionally suffered from mental illnesses. For example, people sometimes characterize someone with depression as being “lazy,” or someone with anxiety as “overthinking.” In fact, these assumptions aren’t based on any fact at all, and only serve to misinform and polarize the public. They also make it harder for people with mental health conditions to acclimate in society, form long-lasting relationships, and find work. In order to break down our stigma, we need to start by addressing our public education in schools and workplaces, before addressing our own biases in ourselves.
Students in particular are no stranger to mental health. From a young age, we’re exposed to various stressors in our lives, from social media to schoolwork to extracurriculars—not to mention family dynamics at home. Many of us are simply overwhelmed. What’s more, our brains are still in development at these stages, making adolescents more vulnerable to factors that may affect mental conditions. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50% of mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, which is concerning for our future generations. We need to take early intervention before feelings turn into consequential actions. Since students spend most of their time in school, our mental health education should also take place in a classroom setting.
Thanks to the prevalence of parents and educators voicing their concerns, a number of school curriculums have now embraced environments that support students’ mental health. These can include one-on-one sessions with a guidance counselor, safe spaces for students to rest and recharge, and programs to increase awareness about resources available. New York is currently leading the way as the first state to require mental health education for all students. Sometimes, the smallest of solutions can have a big impact: a minute of mindfulness during the morning announcements reportedly cured a significant amount of students’ stomachaches at an Indiana school. Other times, larger structural support systems need to be set to target these high-risk groups in schools and colleges. Through trial and error, districts everywhere will hopefully learn how best to implement mental health into their curriculums.
On an individual level, you can do your part to destigmatize these issues by keeping discussions open. Even though it might feel awkward or even taboo to bring up heavy subjects like suicide with your friend, you can start off lighthearted. If someone seems unlike themselves over a period of time, gently ask them, “Hey, is everything alright? How can I help?” More often than not, all they’ll need is a listening ear or comforting shoulder. And don’t forget that you’re worthy of support too, no matter how big or small your problems are. Seek help from a trusted family member or friend instead of dealing with it alone. One question or helping hand at a time, we can tackle this stigma together.