The number of students dealing with mental illness these days is astronomical. With daily crying in the library around exam season, 14 month counselling wait-lists, and public counselors 100% booked up weeks in advance, something is not being done right. The rise of mental illnesses, particularly among youth, is a relatively recent phenomenon. While part of it may simply be an increase of diagnoses, undeniable factors also include the rise of social media, over-stimulation, and the increasingly hyper-competitive and quantifying nature of our society. Despite its prevalence today, there is still an extremely limited amount of general public awareness regarding these issues — so much that many are unaware how to support or talk to people who may have such illnesses, thereby making the problem worse.
This isn’t helped by the way we trivialize mental illness in everyday language. “I’m going to kill myself,” or “I’m going to shoot myself” used in casual conversation as exaggerations really trivialize the issue at hand, and don’t treat suicide with the weight it necessitates. Phrases like “I’m so ADD” in the place of “I’m easily distracted” also take away from what the disorder really means. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is with OCD. People say it every day: “I’m so OCD about my binders,” or “you totally have OCD; your room is so neat.” In reality, that’s not what the disorder means, as the video below demonstrates. (If you’re unclear what OCD is, please watch; it’s really quite enlightening to see what living with the disorder is actually like, as opposed to the general associations we typically have with it).
By using “OCD” and “organized” interchangeably in every day conversation, people think that the two are identical. This false impression immensely undermines the severity of the disorder. Mental illnesses can have a huge negative impact on a person’s daily functioning and relationships, but by equating it to regular habits, people often don’t realize how serious and damaging these issues can be. This normalization can easily lead to thinking that mental illnesses are actually not that big of a deal.
I believe that the first step in raising awareness of these issues is to keep an open mind. Mental illness often feels irrational, making it an extremely difficult experience to describe to someone who has never experienced it. Part of what makes it a problem is that it’s often impossible for the sick person to identify — let alone make sense of — what’s going on in their head. Explaining it to others is not easy to do without bursting into tears, and for a listener who has never felt the same kind of thing, very little will actually make sense. Furthermore, the times I’ve heard the questions “what’s wrong with you?” or “what do you mean you have depression?” asked are most often in a scoffing, derisive, and skeptical tone. If you’re looking to get an answer out of someone with that attitude, forget it.
Another comment I often hear from older generations especially is “that’s normal for your age.” Call it whatever you want, but that still does not make it any less of a problem. Whether or not anxiety, depression, or anorexia among teens is “normal for that age” is irrelevant next to the fact that it’s not okay for someone to cry to sleep for hours every night, or want to black out or stop living. If someone asserts that they are not alright, shouldn’t the conversation be how to make things better?
I am unable to understand why it is so difficult for some to acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. The other day, I passed by a child who was telling his mother that he was really scared of small, dark holes. She dismissively denied it, simply saying, “no you’re not. You’re just imagining it.” The fear of irregular patterns of small holes is called trypophobia and it’s actually a real disease, however difficult that may be to fathom. Theory of mind — the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own — is supposedly developed around around age four. However, it appears that not everyone has fully grasped this concept. If someone makes it clear that they dislike something, are uncomfortable, are in a lot of pain, or are not well in any way, please at least acknowledge it.
More importantly, present yourself as being understanding, open to talk and support someone in need. Be informed of what the terms you are using actually mean, and consider the weight behind your statements. We have a problem right now, and the only way to make it better is to open up conversation and at least try to pretend to understand.