If you've ever watched any sort of Batman film or program, you know Arkham Asylum.
Unstable villains are ushered through empty hallways where they are under lock and key. The asylum is for the "criminally insane." Unfortunately, the word "insane" is tossed around like the remote control in our living rooms and is even transliterated into "crazy" to describe people who are suffering from mental illness.
It can be surprising to people that mental health facilities hardly resemble Arkham Asylum. People imagine these places as ones of schizophrenic peculiarities. And we possess a daunting stigma about mental health, where we assume that everyone can take care of themselves, that mental illness is something self-contracted and exaggerated. We assume that all people, especially those in college, can just "get over it." It doesn't exactly work that way, but why do we see it that way?
At its core, that reason lies somewhere between the dismantled American mental health system and societal expectations of strength and control.
It has been estimated that about 26.2 percent of all adults over the age of 18 struggle with some sort of mental illness. That's one in four Americans. This means we know many people who suffer from mental illness, yet we still consider it a foreign and undiscovered topic.
It seems that every time someone checks into a mental health institute for depression and suicidal thoughts, they are received as "crazy." It's true that these institutes treat more uncommon illnesses like schizophrenia, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Depression arises in a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. The stigma that depression is a self-choice for attention is not only irresponsible but immature and ignorant of science.
Another reason this stigma exists is that people often don't know how to help. But what makes this mold dangerous is that up to 30 percent of college students report symptoms of depression each year.
Our brains are not wired to easily adjust to the complexities of modern society. In 1880, the average age of death was 40. Now, it's close to 80. Surely our brains have hardly evolved since then. In 1880, self-actualization was the last thing on people's minds. Survival was priority No. 1. Is ardent survival a prime burden for modern Americans? No. We worry about the future incessantly. Where will we be in 20 years? In 40? In 60? We assume we will live to about 80 years old. We worry about our legacies, of society's expectations in an unstable world where instant judgment is rendered by technology.
Not only is it problematic the way culture addresses mental illness, our government hasn't done the issue any favors. In the 1980s, President Reagan signed a bill that caused hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill to lose insurance. During the recession, some states saw their mental health spending cut up to 30 percent. This is not even to mention that even though only about 6 percent of Americans suffer from severe mental illness, nearly 25 percent of homeless Americans, people who are often over-looked, do (http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf). And because of this, prisons have emerged as the de facto safety net for mentally ill homeless people.
Not everyone suffering from a mental illness needs institutionalized care or even clinical therapy. But it is obvious that even the best mental health facilities are overburdened and many people don't know whether or not they are eligible for mental health care. And we consider people we know who are suffering from mental illness to be losers, weak, emotional leeches who are inferior.
If the state of mental health in the United States is going to get better, part of it has to start with us. We need to be open to a discussion about mental health issues and barricades to treatment, to acceptance. Next time someone tells you they have suffered from a mental illness, take the time to listen, to understand. Let's stop sweeping it under the rug and just start listening for once.
Wade Scofield is a senior in religious studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.