Other People’s Disease

This is the final oped in a series on Mental Health Awareness Month at Harvard.

The ridicule of agony is the cruelest form of torture. To say, “You are not suffering,” to say that your pain is not real is to relegate the reality of the sufferer to the realm of the trivial, the unimportant, or the laughable. Sometimes this torment is deliberate: I kick you and then laugh at you for crying. But in most cases, the willingness to hurt stems from ignorance or a lack of comprehension: I laugh at you because I do not understand.

People who have not experienced a psychotic break, a panic attack, a depressive episode, an obsessive cycle, a want to hurt themself or a want to die—the feeling of being out of control that symptomizes mental illness—generally do not understand the anguish of these experiences. Not mean-spiritedness, but rather a lack of empathy—stemming, presumably, from a lack of knowledge—must therefore be the source of these claims: “I’m so depressed! I got a C- on my exam!” “I’m feeling totally bipolar today!” “I alphabetize all the books on my shelf! I totally have OCD!” Such statements are not intended to trivialize, but for people who are depressed, manic-depressive, or obsessive-compulsive, these attempts at humor only entrench alienation and stigma.

Political correctness prohibits us from saying, “That’s so gay!” in a derogatory context, yet the incidence of illness-as-punchline remains an all too common occurrence in our otherwise hyper-P.C. environment. Straight people don’t say, “That’s so gay” because they understand why it might be hurtful; but knowledge about mental illness is often lacking and misinformed, and many underestimate (or fail to consider) the severity of mental illness and the grief that jokes at its expense may cause. The Harvard community should be commended for the sensitivity and support it has shown to students who have partaken in mental health-related activities over the course of April (arbitrarily designated “Mental Health Awareness Month”), but the persistence of many students’ lack of knowledge and casual insensitivity proves that we’ve got a long way to go.

The confusing and often ambiguous nature of many mental illnesses’ diagnostic criteria contribute to a widespread ignorance. The website of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out that “the fact that many, if not most, people have experienced mental health problems that mimic or even match some of the symptoms of a diagnosable mental disorder tends, ironically, to prompt many people to underestimate the painful, disabling nature of severe mental illness.” Indeed, people don’t say, “My back hurts! OMG I so have leukemia!” You either have leukemia or you don’t. Mental health, on the other hand, is in many cases a continuum.

Furthermore, most are aware that cancer is indisputably devastating, whereas, to many, the symptoms of many mental illnesses seem only freakish or funny. These harmful misconceptions are often perpetuated by popular media, which get away with portraying obsessive-compulsives as comically anal because the consuming public doesn’t know enough to protest or to turn away with shaking heads, saying, “That’s not how it is!”

Harvard students need to better understand the nature—and prevalence— of mental illness. Mental illness is not something that other people have; according to the NIMH, one in four adults will suffer from one or more mental illnesses in his lifetime, and one in seven will suffer from one or more severe illness. Before referring in jest to “those voices in your head,” keep in mind that schizophrenia destroys lives, and that last year UHS diagnosed five Harvard students with the disease. In other words, if your joking hides real symptoms of psychosis, keep two things in mind: the terror that your jesting masks is justified, and you are not alone.

Bear in mind, too, that in many circumstances, the mentally ill may not look “crazy.” Though those with unrelenting symptomatic behaviors may stand out, many sufferers’ illnesses are subtle and insidious. Many illnesses manifest behind the scenes—behind closed doors, in bursts or breaks, in neutral behaviors, or only in the mind. Harvard students are famous for our ability to cover, to act, to seem fine when we are not. We might question declarations of, “He seems fine!” with: Are you looking?

The need for college students to understand the nature of mental illness is imperative and timely, for most illnesses’ symptoms first surface in late adolescence and early adulthood. Be sensitive, be open-minded, be aware and get informed: When others reference mental health in a trivial or stigmatizing way, remind them that mental illness is a serious issue that affects everybody. Hundreds of Harvard students live with mental illness; you or a loved one may suffer from a disease that others may, in their ignorance, attempt to render funny. Ideally, the result of education about mental illness will be not only the elimination of ridicule at its expense, but also of harmful misconceptions that perpetuate its stigma.

Mental illness isn’t funny, and neither is the problem of those who claim it is. We can’t make mental illness go away, but a lack of sensitivity to the suffering it causes is both inexcusable and highly avoidable.

Emily R. Kaplan ’08-’09 is an anthropology concentrator in Pforzheimer House. She is director of public relations for the Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group.

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