Author: Kamryn Dean, Unchained Brain Executive
The definition of stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. Stigma is essentially judgement, bias, or negative misunderstanding. In all honesty I believe it wasn’t until around my sophomore year of high school that I learned the definition of this word, but I know that I have associated stigmas with things I encounter in life since way before then. I didn’t know the definition, but I am guilty of the action. Growing up I found it easy at times to look at the world through a very black and white lens like I think a lot of us have. I would often assume or argue that people’s struggles in life simply due to their own mistakes, or even just the result of dramatization. This was an extremely easy way to live when I looked at people’s lives from the outside in. I’ve been guilty of this with the standard items- crime, poverty, addictions, but it even leaked over into health and wellness in some cases. Mental health seemed to be a battle ground. I often found myself wondering if people’s conditions were simply due to their own choices- “do they just want attention?”, “Why are they being so dramatic.”, “That isn’t a justification for them acting like that” are all thoughts I would have from time to time. I had a stigma against mental health and didn’t understand how serious it could be for some, because I didn’t know much about it in the first place. Unlike things like physical health, math, and science, I hadn’t been educated on mental health to a great extent, so I didn’t even entirely understand it. Yet I associated a stigma with it. What I have realized since then, though, is that my judgement was very problematic. I came to understand that mental health has a wide range of impacts that can’t be overlooked. Who was I to judge something so personal and oftentimes difficult from the outside looking in?
What I find the most intriguing about stigmas and judgement is that they aren’t fun or easy to have. It costs a lot to hold a grudge, and just like that it costs a lot to hold a stigma against something. When we look at our peers who are open about their mental health struggles and try to judge them for their condition, we are taking up our own time and effort to simply nix what they have to say or feel, and for what gain? One of my friends has a great line that he loves to shout out when my friends and I get into quarrels, and it seems quite fitting for this- “They’re living in your head, rent free!”. You have nothing to gain from saying that girl faked an eating disorder for attention. You have nothing to gain from brushing off someone’s OCD as an exaggeration, and you have nothing to gain from saying that someone is faking depression. When you take effort away from these judgements and are more accepting and understanding as an instinct, you will likely find you have more energy to direct towards yourself and your own goals- things you will actually gain from. It’s as simple as trying to be understanding when it comes to mental health, and also educating yourself. You don’t’ have to read a book or consult a thousand colorful Instagram posts, but maybe look up a couple of definitions, and reach out to that friend who has opened up about their mental health in an open and honest way. When we work to understand what people are going through and how we can better help and support them rather than just brushing things off, we make the world a better place.
Another thing I find interesting is that when we turn a blind eye to issues or hold a stigma against them, we keep valuable knowledge and growth from ourselves. It wasn’t until this summer that I learned the true, more nuanced definition of OCD from a friend who struggled with it, and it was then that I realized I had experienced symptoms characteristic of OCD before, and so had some of my family members. Prior to our conversation I didn’t understand the many different ways OCD can impact people and how complex it is. I noticed that simply understanding and confronting this was both difficult and uplifting. At first I was regrettably a bit ashamed to say that what I was experiencing could be a mental illness, but why was this? I wouldn’t be so ashamed of a physical health issue like breaking a bone or contracting the flu but would just want to get it fixed, so why was mental health different? The answer was stigma that I had against it. I didn’t know much about OCD, hadn’t had honest conversations about it or thought of my struggles as relatable at all, and consequently placed a stigma on it. All of that changed for the better after that simple conversation. Simply having this knowledge and recognition has helped me a lot. My experience used to involve getting a lot of intrusive thoughts, as they are described by professionals, where random undesirable thoughts would enter my mind at times, but I started to experience this a lot less once I learned valuable information from my friend about the issue, found that I could relate to him openly and talk about it, and consulted some basic techniques for remedying the affects on my own, which he helped me find. Without the conversations about mental health I had with my friend, I would have remained trapped in that stigma that was not only hurting my ability to understand myself, and also one of my good friends. It really is amazing what one late night facetime call can do.
Stigma, misunderstanding, and judgement are things we are all guilty of. That means likely everyone at Fishers, and I can say honestly everyone on the Unchained Brain committee at times in our lives, especially myself. It’s something that we have all done before, but something we can all work to fix. You don’t have to know the definition of every mental health issue, beat yourself up over every distasteful joke, or punish yourself for a quick judgment you’ve made, but why not try and grow positively a little at a time? You will find that it helps others and can mean a lot to them, and it may even help yourself as well.