End the Stigma Against Sadness

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my friend gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like telling someone you’re sad,” she told me, “just remember that no one likes sad people. They probably don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

Unfortunately, I took this advice too seriously. In 2013, as a second-semester freshman, I was trying to do too much, in an attempt to keep up with the rigorous demands my high school had set. This stress exacerbated undiagnosed, unmedicated symptoms of depression and anxiety. Like Allie Brosh of “Hyperbole and a Half,” I saw no good reason to be sad – this is what college was like, and if I couldn’t read all my readings on time for lack of a good reading speed, then it was my fault.

If I could go back in time, I would have gone to the Counseling and Psychiatric Services available on campus. Alas, at the time, I didn’t know Georgetown had a counseling and psychiatric service. And, if I did know, I would not have gone. I lived the stigma against mental illness; I was the stigma.

I continued not knowing what CAPS was until my mother and father called the service from our home in Bethesda, Md., after my symptoms became too acute for me to remain on campus. CAPS assigns priority to the worst cases first, and, since I was among the worst, a CAPS clinician met with me within two days, and I was quickly spirited into academic leave. In the late weeks of spring, I was hospitalized part-time through Georgetown hospital’s partial psychiatric hospitalization program.

I did make it back to Georgetown in fall 2013. My current state is functioning and content. I receive consistent support from my wonderful boyfriend and parents. With antidepressants, with a formal academic disability form the Academic Resource Center and with generous academic policies from my deans and professors, I have managed to go on. These are accessible and invaluable resources that I encourage all Georgetown students to use.

But I got lucky in that my case was serious enough to merit emergency medical attention. Had my symptoms been less pronounced, had I not had parents who could house me in the vicinity of Georgetown, I may not have gotten the care I needed as promptly. Had my family not been able to afford the costs of a string of psychiatrists and psychotherapists, or the time it took to support me through the summer, I may never have returned to Georgetown. My recovery relied on the steady support of psychiatric services that are, in theory, globally available. But more so, my recovery relied on the luck of being in the right family, the right place, the right time, the right mental state. Luck is not a legitimate health care system.

I’ve joined the Georgetown University Student Association Mental Health Committee to consistently inform our administration about the issues of mental health at Georgetown, and to educate students on the resources available at Georgetown. CAPS is the best service we have for mental health on campus. But CAPS workers are overbooked, and the service is understaffed and has limited space to function. And, as our Mental Health Open Forum demonstrated, the administration does not plan to increase subsidies for the costs of CAPS any time in the next year.

We’re doing our best to develop unofficial therapeutic services, such as a program for students to support their peers. We’re trying as hard as we can to improve the lives of students who live with mental illnesses. But we are not going to be enough.

When Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Connor Rohan (COL ’16) were running their humorous campaign for GUSA presidency, they took the problems of mental health services on this campus seriously. In this spirit, we’re asking you to prioritize your mental well-being.

#EndTheStigma around talking about mental health and telling your stories just because they are “sad.” #EndTheStigma against demanding the help that you and your friends require to be functional students. Be men and women for others. #EndTheFuckingStigma.

 

Masha Stoianova is a senior in the College.

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3 Comments

  1. Harold A. Maio says:

    —-EndTheStigma around talking about mental health

    Stop saying there is one.

    You educate people who hold a prejudice, you do not participate in educating people to a prejudice.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor
    khmaio@earthlink.net

  2. “Luck is not a legitimate health care system.” Very true and succinctly put, insightful point. Those who come from more economically privileged or accepting backgrounds have a much better chance of eventually recovering and overcoming their mental illnesses than those who do not.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I respectfully disagree with Harold Maio. We will not remove the stigma by refusing to talk about the stigma. The stigma was not invented by articles discussing the stigma. In my culture, and in many cultures represented among Georgetown students, there is a tradition of taboo, and as soon as mental health is even mentioned, if ever, family members become awkward and someone changes the conversation topic. Articles like this, and the attention given to eliminating the taboo, help the situation by convincing students that the university and student leaders do not hold the same taboo. It is okay to seek help.

    You cannot end a problem if you refuse to acknowledge its existence as reality. There is simply no way to even address this issue if we “stop saying there is one.”

  3. I disagree with Harold. His creative denial of the word stigma would unlikely actually remove the problem of stigma. I am unaware of any empirical research or theoretical research that supports his viewpoint. Complex problems often require complex answers.

    4 other things in response to Harold’s terse imperatives.

    1. People who are privileged are often unaware of the subtle discrimination that they enact, and are often unaware of the stigma that those who are less privileged experience. Education on this is obviously important so that privileged people can change the broader systems that stigmatize people. There is evidence that doctors and nurses can stigmatize their patients, without their conscious knowledge.

    2. Educating people is unlikely to make a difference, if that is the sole approach. Meta-analyses of educational interventions show that people often exhibit defensiveness when engaged with information that contradicts their prejudice–lending those interventions weak (at best) or counterproductive (people endorse more prejudice than before).

    3. As we wait and work toward the idealized world where stigma and the word “stigma” don’t exist, it is important that researchers consider ways of helping stigmatized groups of people free themselves from (a) internalizing societal prejudice and discrimination and (b) living productive, successful lives despite being stigmatized by society (see Corrigan’s work on coming out proud).

    4. Saying stigma does not exist is invalidating to many of those who feel stigmatized. It is more accurate to say there “shouldn’t be stigma.” Words do matter.

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