Mental illness has a branding problem

Matthew Wallace | Staff Writer

Being in college means a few things: late nights studying, eating irresponsibly, being on email lists for clubs you don’t participate in, complaining about textbook/tuition prices and going to bad parties thrown by privileged, sexist and kind of dumb guys who willingly decide to only live with other guys. Instead of those, I want to talk about mental health in college, particularly here at Washington University. The school has a poor infrastructure regarding handling mental health from the understaffed Student Health Services to the constant barrage of mind shredding exams and homework, as well as the lack of any semblance of a work-life balance. Universities always say we should pay more attention to mental health and make sure everyone has access to competent services, but few actually take the initiative. Undertaking this massive endeavor involves a crucial first step. Is it getting more therapists in the workforce to ensure everyone has access to someone who better understands their situation? No. Is it pumping more money into the system? Nope. The all-important first step is recognizing that mental health as a concept has a severe branding problem. Changing how people think about mental health seems unimportant when it devastates millions of lives everyday, but I believe this is the most important step.

Living a modern life, one will undoubtedly hear sayings in conversation that illustrate how little the general public truly knows about mental health. “I was so depressed during finals, but once they were over, I was myself again,” “I’m so picky—I probably have OCD” or “I definitely am bipolar: My mood changes so fast”. While they seem harmless, these statements and others like them are incredibly disrespectful and damaging to those who suffer from mental illnesses. The general public misbelieves that feeling sad, stressed, uncertain, angry or whatever else they are feeling for more than a day qualifies as a mental illness. You may experience strong emotions that you don’t know how properly handle from time to time, but again this is not the same as having a real mental illness. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness means that, even with treatment, some symptoms may never fully go away. It is there when you graduate college; it is there at your wedding; it is there at every fantastic moment of your life. It never goes away. Downplaying the seriousness of mental health is the same as downplaying an illness that is more immediately apparent to others. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to get over it, someone with heart disease to pray on it or someone with Alzheimer’s that you went through it before but overcame it through sheer willpower. Just because you can’t see the disease does not mean it isn’t real.

There are walks for everything under the sun, especially for diseases. Cancer, AIDS, breast cancer, ALS, MS, Alzheimer’s disease, the list goes on. While there has been a dramatic increase in the attention and funding for mental health, they are commonly grouped together with no care for the differences between them. Someone with severe depression has a different struggle than someone with an anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or any other mental illness. The same illness is also different for each person as each person’s brain is unique. Being aware of the vast variations this category of illness can present itself in allows better understanding and treatment for these serious diseases. There should be a walk for depression; there should be fundraisers for bipolar disorder; and there should be adequate support groups for families who lost a loved one to suicide. Even though I don’t like some of the fluff and nonsense around disease-based causes or events, they do bring much needed awareness and money through fundraising efforts.

Another large roadblock to treating mental illness is how new it is to the general public. Only recently has it become acceptable to openly discuss personal mental health issues without being ostracized. Before, you were branded crazy or unstable, but today, words such as brave and courageous are thrown around. Because it is a complex topic, it takes time for people to fully understand what people actually mean when they say “I have depression.” You and your friends may be able to handle this shift fairly easily, but older adults have decades of habits to reform. Although this is expected, the time people in decision making roles take to undergo this shift means more people are going to go untreated and potentially damage their lives permanently. There needs to be a real push towards forcing that change in more people’s minds, as this crisis only grows by the day.

I know there are millions of things we could do to better help treatment of mental illnesses. I think any progress in any of these areas is needed and everyone should work towards progress on all fronts. But in my opinion, changing how the world thinks, talks and interacts with mental health in their daily lives will do the most good. The goal is to associate mental illness with real, more physical manifestations instead of believing it is only in their head. Many illnesses are difficult to treat and feel like a dead end, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Mental health deserves to be given the same attention and compassion other diseases have. So, I implore you, when you experience these serious illnesses being trivialized in your life, correct them, as it could save someone’s life.