So We Beat On: The Reality of the North American Mental Health Stigma and What You Can Do to End It
So We Beat On
The Reality of the North American Mental Health Stigma and What You Can Do to End It
By Paige Gilmar
Human beings are galaxies–profound, evolving, and complex. Like galaxies, there is cosmic chaos within us, where planets of identity are destroyed; stars of hope die; and black holes of negativity consume. However, most of us are mere stargazers, only seeing the surface, admiring each other’s light and neglecting the infinite darkness of depression and other innumerable mental health issues. We notice beaming smiles before sad eyes, shining bracelets before dark scars. This darkness inside us is unintelligible to most, so we bury it beneath artificial laughter and cheap grins. It is only when we read the headlines in our local paper declaring another young adult fresh from high school killed after they kissed the barrel of a gun, that we are forced to see beyond the stars in our eyes and into the darkness of our minds. Often times, it is only when it is too late that we begin to understand the multiple dimensions of mental illness.
The media, however, only encourages our misbehavior, transforming mentally ill patients into psychotic killers, abusers, and rapists. Film, news, TV shows–every platform of mass communication imbues us with the familiar story plot of a neurotypical protagonist fighting against the evil, often mentally unstable villain. Said villains are fantastically monstrous and horrendously two-dimensional with their personality traits encapsulating no more than Milton’s seven deadly sins. It fuels the us-versus-them logic, creating a silent segregation that isolates those who already suffer. It is no stretch of the imagination to comprehend that out of the nearly 62 million Americans who suffer from mental illness, only a third receive professional treatment (NCBH). Moreover, 68-percent of Americans do not want mentally ill individuals married into the family, and 5- percent of Americans do not want mentally ill individuals in the workplace (APA).
This stigmatizing ideology of mental illness as dangerous, fictitious, or both is paraded as objective fact, spurring millions to suffer in silence. Rather than seek out professional treatment and be officially labeled as the “community freak,” many often resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like self-harm or substance abuse. Rather than drown in their silence, they drown in a bottle of Southern Comfort–a fate equally deadly.
Throughout the decades, celebrities from Judy Garland to Whitney Houston have shown the tragedy of living a life of silence and self-medication. It was only last July that Linkin Park’s singer Chester Bennington silenced the cataclysmic music within him with a makeshift noose and bottle of alcohol. Nevertheless, though the same story is told again and again, the media still has the audacity to write articles with such stigmatizing titles like “15 Celebrities Who Are Crazy in Real Life” and “The 13 Weirdest Celebrities in Hollywood.” It seems that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous conclusion to The Great Gatsby resounds increasingly to the present circumstances, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Nevertheless, many spritely millennials have transformed from boats into battleships, overcoming the currents of ignorance and misinformation to pursue the horizon that looks both bright and hopeful, including your fellow author. It was seven years ago that I, an angst-riddled teenybopper starving for a safe space to talk about my mental health, decided to create a virtual community that has now become my home: www.askingjude.org.
It is difficult to imagine an HTTPS as a home, but over the years, I have cultivated an emotional and mental safe haven for presently over 31,000. The demographics are diverse but mainly encompass individuals on the brink of adulthood, yearning for the educated guidance and validation they cannot find within their own social circles. With myself and a team of compassionate volunteers I hire quarterly, we interact and answer questions from our users on widely varying topics from domestic violence to sexuality to depression.
Masquerading in my self-created, alter-ego “Jude,” my time within this identity brought me closer to myself. Helping others became a daily therapy that enabled my mental and emotional health to flourish. As my empathy and compassion developed with each user I helped, my interpersonal relationships improved tremendously. By helping rather than downgrading others, I was able to help myself, becoming a healthier, happier person in general.
Though it is a relatively meager nonprofit compared to the giants of mental health awareness like To Write Love on Her Arms or Project Semicolon, the Asking Jude community is far from insignificant. With each and every question answered, myself and my interns work to remove many of the social cancers of society, including homophobia, body shaming, violence, racism, sexism, and the mental health stigma. And, you can as well.
Within each of our hardened, cynical selves, a sensitive, compassionate soul is waiting to arise. Speak openly and honestly to yours friends and family about the importance of mental health awareness. Participate in organizations and events that promote the importance of mental health. Become an activist, an explorer. Become the bright, blaring sun that will light the dark universe of many souls. Because this will do more than save a life or two: It will save ourselves, our society, and, most importantly, our humanity.