How we talk about mental illness needs to change

Last updated: 01/22/14 7:06pm


When I was growing up, it did not take me long to learn that common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders were not exactly taken seriously by most of the adults in my life. I have a history of anxiety and depression going back to my early teen years.

In school, I tried to hide what I was going through. I was very good at downplaying the extent of my depression, and I was generally a responsible student. Occasionally, on a bad day, my anxiety would get to the point where I was no longer able to function and I would have to excuse myself. I didn’t like to lie, but I quickly learned that I had to leave out certain details.

I couldn’t tell someone that I was starting to have a panic attack, even if I knew that was what was going on. I had to focus exclusively on the physical symptoms, like “I’m feeling a little dizzy and nauseated right now.” That would absolutely be true, but I would feel guilty about omitting the rest of it, because I had been inadvertently taught that what was actually happening was not deserving of sympathy.

For readers who are not familiar with panic attacks, it is not uncommon for people who start experiencing panic attacks in adulthood to go to the ER thinking that they are having a heart attack.

There are a lot of symptoms in common between a heart attack and a panic attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath and “sense of impending doom.” A panic attack is basically a completely inappropriate activation of the “fight-or-flight” response. If you are not aware of what is going on, you can actually think that your life is in acute danger.

Knowing all of this now, it is amazing to me to look back on some of the responses that I got from otherwise well-meaning people when I’ve been honest about what I was dealing with. I’ve been told that my depression was “silly” because I could not possibly have anything to really be sad about.

I’ve been told that being terrified to the point of throwing up was “all in my head,” as if that made it any less real than something that was all in my stomach. Despite the fact that common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are linked with very real physical symptoms, the fact that they originate from within the brain causes some people to think that sufferers of mental illnesses are malingering.

I used to think that my problems were being dismissed because many adults do not often take the concerns of young people seriously, but now I know that mental illness is often dismissed and minimized in general. Estimates for prevalence of mental illness vary. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 4 people meet diagnostic criteria for a mental illness during their lifetime, but this is probably a low-end estimate.

Paradoxically, even though some aspects of mental illness are often not taken seriously, there is also a pervasive stigma against mental illness. As a result, people with more common (yet still potentially serious and even life-threatening) mood and anxiety disorders often do not get the help they need to recover. Yet, people with illnesses like schizophrenia are often seen as a threat to public safety when in reality, people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.

At least a quarter of the people you know had, have, or will have a mental health problem that interferes with their daily functioning and quality of life and may even eventually be life-threatening. The way we tend to stigmatize, minimize and refuse to talk openly about mental illness is not just wrong – it’s dangerous.

Published Jan 22, 2014 in Opinions

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