When you picture an asylum, what comes to mind? For many people, it’ll be a prison-like building with white walls and barred windows. Maybe even a “Shutter Island”-esque ocean lockup filled with unknown or unspeakable horrors. I think it’s telling that just googling ‘psychiatric asylum’ brings up images meant to invoke fear: walls with writing scratched into them and patients confined to straitjackets. But is this really the way we should be depicting mental illness, something that 1 in 5 adults will struggle with yearly?
These stereotypes are not coincidental - the stigma against mental illness can be traced back to how terribly mentally ill individuals have been treated throughout history, not only in the U.S., but around the globe. Today, studies show this stigma materializes in the way we are treated by our family members, peers and teachers. Those afflicted are belittled as burdens while the act of seeking help is made out to be taboo. I’ve heard a friend be described as “too depressing to be around” due to their social anxiety. This social stigma is often invalidating and painful, leading to self-stigma and self-hatred. Our mentally ill peers are often forced to fight on three fronts: against their illness, against those who discriminate against them and against themselves. Self-stigmatization, in turn, leads to a reluctance to seek help, pushing forward a vicious cycle.
Despite a long history of challenges, there is so much we can do every day to combat these stigmas. One way is to simply talk openly and sensitively about mental health, while educating ourselves and others on the topic. By eliminating the idea that these discussions are somehow taboo, we can encourage others to be more open about their own experiences. While doing so, we should always stay conscious of our language. For example, it’s better to say that someone “has bipolar disorder” instead of saying that someone “is bipolar.” In a quick shift of words, you can highlight that an individual is so much more than their illness.
One great tip that I think everyone should remember is to treat mental illnesses just as you would any physical illness. Think about the way you imagine someone with schizophrenia and compare that to how you imagine someone with cancer. Both are struggling with something far out of their control and both deserve equal respect and access to humane treatment.
Another way to help is to actively be positive about seeking treatment and therapy. There is no shame in seeking counseling just as there is none in visiting a primary care doctor. I find that this stigma is especially dangerous because it discourages individuals from getting better. Imagine if a man with a broken bone felt ashamed to visit the hospital?
With regards to counseling, one of the holes that I’ve personally fallen into is the idea that “others have it worse, so I don’t want to take up a spot that would be better used elsewhere.” I promise there is no minimum threshold required for therapy. Your experiences are valid. You are valid.
At UF, we are fortunate enough to have access to the Counseling & Wellness Center, U Matter, We Care, the Care Team, Nutrition Services, GatorWell and more. Though they could always be expanded, I encourage anyone who feels that they would benefit from a visit to schedule one as soon as they are able. Classes can become overwhelming, so it’s important to remember to put ourselves and our well-being first.
Matthew Diaz is the Hispanic and Latinx Caucus Leader in Student Government