Stigma: The Disease that Prevents Healing
December 1, 2021
As a Latin student who felt immense academic pressure during the fall of my senior year, taking seven weeks off of school to finally treat my mental health meant being alone in the fight against feelings of shame from the stigma surrounding mental illness. I had always put perceived “success” over my mental health to appear capable when inside I felt the opposite. Admitting my inability to continue in the duties I had once done seemingly easily made me feel isolated in the environment of my peers achieving the high academic success I was no longer able to uphold.
I finally understood what the stigma of mental health felt like—feeling like you are going against what everyone else expects of you to stop “achievements” and responsibilities and instead admit you need help.
Latin’s institutional competitiveness encourages students to continue schoolwork and extracurricular obligations past the hours they are required, lose sleep over their drive to get an “A” on a test, and participate in activities and classes just to increase their chances of attending a selective college that similarly encourages competitiveness.
Society sees mental illness as a flaw of the person who is suffering, dating back to the abuse of the first “lunatic asylums,” and this lasting stigma reached my home. My feelings were dismissed when I got overwhelmed with intense anxiety that prevented me from being able to walk into school, go to birthday parties, or even sleep. I felt that no one was aware of the struggle I was going through and that my own parents were afraid of my feelings. Those around me who were trying to help were driven by their desire to protect me from stereotypes, instead of trying to understand what I was going through. The way I was treated for my anxiety made me feel invalid and shameful.
Society’s lack of education around how to recognize and treat mental illness puts stereotypes in a position of power, controlling others’ perception of me and how to treat me. The perception I had of myself was controlled by stigma and dictated the way I did everything to hide my emotions instead of treating them. I was used to recognizing my panic as bad behavior, as if my feelings were an inconvenience to others. I started to believe that I deserved the restrictions and shame-inflicting comments that were made when I would show my anxiety, and it prevented me from ever speaking out or getting help.
I have been fighting intense anxiety alone since fifth grade and was not diagnosed or treated until the beginning of my senior year in high school. I felt judgment from those around me when I spoke out about my emotions. I was used to telling myself that I was weak, that my anxiety was a source of shame.
I wasn’t alone, though; most people suffering from mental illness do not receive treatment. Admitting one’s struggle is not as easy as it seems, as it makes you a possible victim of the public stigma that exists in our culture. Rooted from the beginning treatment of mental illness, offensive and untruthful stereotypes and discrimination still exist today.
I know that if students were taught to understand our limits and abilities, advocate for our health, and push ourselves in helpful ways, we would be given the tools we need to flourish in the long run and have a balanced, realistic, and sustainable academic routine. I reached my breaking point because I was striving for comparative success and not acknowledging my own needs. I wish I was taught the validity of taking a break instead of wasting my time ignoring my limits and not accepting my individuality to finally figure out how wise it is to prioritize health.
In a society that supports traits like dominance, discipline, and competition, the time needed to care for mental health is not provided and is sometimes deemed as a failure. Our world must give attention to validating the struggles each one of us goes through. It will take institutional recognition and action of community members to change how these demands and expectations are framed to put an end to the feelings of worthlessness, and the depression that shame feeds.
The unhealthy demands of success is one example of the institutional stigma nearly half of our country’s adults suffer from. This neglect contributes to the fears of being treated poorly, losing jobs, or losing “livelihoods.” Many school and work environments invalidate taking time off, which makes it hard for students and employees, respectively, to get treatment, be safe, and feel fulfilled while taking on life’s responsibilities.
Latin community members must recognize the value of prioritizing mental health. Spreading awareness with editorials like these can only do so much; it is up to current students, employees, partners, children, and friends to use their control in language, actions, and support to fight against the stereotypes, validate mental illness, and destigmatize “struggling” itself.
A community must be open in order to create an environment where its members address and talk openly about mental illness, which is necessary to fight against shame and increase the outcome of getting treatment. Setting an example by implementing different forms of therapy in one’s routine and promoting it destigmatizes treatment, something that is often perceived as selfish, embarrassing, or again, shameful. Providing space for therapy, after-school programs teaching cognitive behavior therapy, breaks from schoolwork, time with family, and hobbies to coexist in job, home, and school routines would fight against the ongoing epidemic of stigma.
Shame had infected me, prevented me from being myself and being brave enough to get the help I needed. Surrendering to the stigma in order to break the barrier between suffering from mental illness, and fighting against it, should not be a necessary step in getting treatment. To move on from that added struggle, as a society, we must all work to replace traits of dominance, discipline, and competition, with openness, communication, and connection.
Note: If you are a Latin community member who is struggling or has struggled with mental illness, Latin provides many resources to help. Whether talking with our school’s counselors or finding community through joining our Mental Health Alliance Club at Latin, we are here to help, even when help feels scarce, and I am here in support. Reaching out for help takes strength, but I hope my experience can shed light to the outcome being worth the effort.