Op-Ed: Mainstream Mental Health Awareness Can Hurt People With 

Mental Illness

By Salma Metwally 

This is Why MHY Aims to Include Everyone in the Discussion Surrounding Mental Health.

Mainstream mental health “awareness,” at least how it's done now, hurts people with mental illness. The movement was never meant for those who are actually stigmatized. Feeling “blue” has never been stigmatized, so why are people talking about it and pretending that they are doing something revolutionary? Our mission is different. We aim to make important information more accessible, to advocate for those who actually face stigma and bias, and to create more resources and/or make them more available.

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Every mental illness is a mental health issue. But not every mental health issue is a mental illness. It is important that we differentiate between the two. Anyone can have poor health, whether they have an illness or not. However, not everybody has a clinical, sometimes incurable mental illness. Mental health refers to someone’s acute emotional or psychiatric well-being, how they are feeling in the moment. Everyone will suffer from poor mental health at some point in their lives, the same way everybody will get sick or catch a cold. However, not everyone will be diagnosed with a life-altering and potentially deadly psychiatric illness, the same way not everyone will be diagnosed with diabetes, cancer, or an autoimmune disease. 

Someone who doesn’t have a mental illness can develop poor mental health due to stress, sleep deprivation, a breakup, losing a job, negative life circumstances, or losing a loved one. On the flip side, a person with a mental illness can go into remission and have good mental health by going to therapy, taking medication, and minimizing stress. Yet, they are still mentally ill. There is no cure for mental illness. The underlying pathology (brain abnormality) of the illness remains, meaning there is always a very high risk of relapse, especially if the person is untreated. They will need to manage their illness for the rest of their lives. This is what makes a medical illness different from merely experiencing a few of its symptoms due to life circumstances. This is not to say that poor mental health due to life circumstances can't be debilitating or even deadly, but that we need to make a clearer distinction between conditions that can be “cured” and chronic, neurological illnesses that can’t.  

Language Matters

When I type “most common mental health issues” into the Google search bar, the first page lists exclusively results relating to mental illness. However, mental illnesses aren’t the most common mental health issues. Global prevalence ranges anywhere from <1% to 10% for any given mental illness.59 However, 100% of people experience some form of stress and grief. 100% of people feel hopeless after losing something important to them. Why are those not listed as the most common mental health issues?

“Mental health problems, sadness, moodiness, apprehension, and cleanliness” are used interchangeably with “mental illness, depression, bipolar, anxiety, and OCD.” If you are apprehensive about a test, you can listen to music and try to calm down. However, if you use “apprehension” and “anxiety” interchangeably, you expect the same thing from a person with clinical anxiety. You expect the person to stop being anxious by doing the same, simple, easy things you do to help with apprehension and uneasiness, which is unrealistic and even dismissive of how much the person is suffering. Oftentimes, people try to give “advice” to people with mental illness but end up sounding uninformed and insensitive instead. Someone is not depressed because they have gone through a breakup. They are grieving. That is normal and healthy, albeit painful. Just because going to the gym can help distract someone from a breakup, doesn’t mean it will help, or is even remotely possible, for someone who is depressed. Someone is not bipolar for feeling happier when they see their friends and being upset about missing their bus. That is normal and healthy. Someone doesn't have ADHD for being unfocused in an uninteresting geometry class. That is normal and healthy. We need to start addressing mental illnesses like the disabling, medical illnesses they are, instead of simply as an exaggerated adjective to describe normal (albeit oftentimes uncomfortable) emotional states that every human being will experience.

All of the “normalization” and “honesty” we are working toward has backfired; difficult and misunderstood illnesses are often taken out of context and used as a “quirky” descriptor, belittling the struggles and experiences of many mentally ill people. In extreme cases, it can prevent people from seeking support, because they fear society’s stigma or believe that others won’t take them seriously after years of seeing their private struggles made into a public joke. 

We don't need "mental health awareness"

Mental health awareness has excluded mentally ill people from a movement that should have specifically aimed to help them. Hosting workshops and lectures on gratitude journaling, meditation, and healthy living are great ways of highlighting the importance of taking care of our (mental) health. However, these approaches are only solutions for problems that are already socially accepted and experienced by everyone. These are problems like stress or job dissatisfaction. No one gets stigmatized for complaining about how stressed they are or how unreasonable their boss is. No one has ever been stigmatized for grieving the loss of a loved one, only for becoming so depressed that they cannot even get out of bed and brush their teeth. No one has ever been stigmatized for being stressed by a 12-hour workday, only for being so overworked that they consider suicide. Everyone knows that a balanced and healthy lifestyle will lead to better (mental and physical) health, which are definitely important things to talk about, but there is no stigma in the first place. Discussions like these don’t really belong in a space that aims to help those suffering from stigmatized mental health issues. 

We need to accept the existence of mental illness and subsequently address it. We don’t need workshops on meditation, but on suicide prevention and the importance of getting help. We need systemic reform, whether it’s talking about inhumane treatment in psychiatric hospitals, addressing homelessness and addiction, or advocating for reform in our criminal justice system. We need to treat mentally ill people with empathy and, more importantly, dignity and autonomy. We need to talk about mental illnesses as real, medical illnesses requiring medical attention and consistent treatment.

Suicide. Depression. Bipolar disorder. Hallucinations. Anxiety. PTSD. Schizophrenia. Self-harm. Bulimia. Borderline personality disorder. Psychosis. Abuse. Trauma. Paranoia. Addiction. OCD. Narcissistic personality disorder. Anorexia. Do those words make you uncomfortable? They should. If you feel uncomfortable, it’s because these words are forcing you to address the reality of mental illness. 20% of the population will suffer from a mental illness, of which 5% are so seriously impaired that they are unable to function in society.60 However, we are still uncomfortable, despite (surely) knowing someone who is mentally ill, even if we don’t know it yet. We still don’t want to talk about mental illness, and that needs to change. If we are an employer, a teacher, a parent, a sibling, or a friend, that needs to change. If we are decent people, that needs to change.

We still hate sick people

I would like to think that, despite its flaws, mental health awareness has still managed to make progress in reducing stigma. I realize I am wrong when I see how we react to mental illness. We blame women with postpartum depression/psychosis for neglecting their children. We cringe away from schizophrenics. We blame addicts for circumstances that are beyond their control. We encourage restrictive eating disorders. We shun people who experience scary intrusive thoughts. We minimize the pain that mental illness brings while pretending to care about those who are mentally ill. Right now, we only care about mental health issues that can be experienced by everyone, but not about the individuals who actually face deep-running stigma and ostracization.

About the Author

Salma Metwally is a high school student from California. She enjoys researching political affairs, history, psychiatry, and neuroscience. In her free time, she likes to crochet and do Taekwondo. A fun fact about her is that she speaks four languages.