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Overcoming history is never an easy task. Yet recent efforts by student organizations and the administration here on campus are attempting to reverse a century’s worth of prejudice against mental illness by opening new discussions on how it should be addressed. These efforts are commendable and clearly much-needed, given the recent slew of meetings, rallies, and the anonymous Crimson piece about the subject, and as the product of the bring-back-hot-breakfast era, I am glad to see Harvard unified on a genuinely substantial and often-neglected issue.
What does concern me, however, is whether this sudden urgency to talk about mental illness will last. This is not the first time Harvard was questioned on its mental health capabilities, and their prior solution of hiring psychiatrists is concerningly similar to what they hope to do now to address the issue. Though the current student-led efforts to increase awareness are at a much larger scale than those of the past, more needs to be done to ensure mental illness stays at the forefront of the campus consciousness. Harvard is not the only place that needs to reconsider its efforts on how mental health is viewed; this is something that should be addressed at a national scale.
Almost every opinion piece on mental health in America argues that the stigma associated with mental illness needs to end, and this is completely true. The negative connotations surrounding mental illnesses discourage actively discussing ways to improve its image. But as much as we know the stigmatization must end before any progress can be made in this field, it is difficult to erase our old-fashioned, preconceived ideas of mentally ill people—especially given Hollywood’s fascination with lunatic asylums, and our flippant use of labels like “crazy” or “OCD” in our everyday vocabulary. There is even a “dangerousness criterion” associated with people of mental illness, while they only make up about 3 to 5 percent of reported violent crimes. These and other subtle insults to those with mental illness encourage the misconception that having a mental disease means there is something inherently wrong with the patient, rather than there being something wrong with the patient’s health. Thus, even if people recognize they could be mentally ill, they are less likely to actively seek medical attention for their sickness and more likely to ignore their symptoms for fear of being judged.
To change our attitude on mental illness, we need to end these preconceived ideas as soon as possible. One potential solution could be teaching young adults about mental health early so they can accurately learn what each disease is—before embracing a biased stereotype of what it means to be mentally ill—and what to do if they think they have certain symptoms. While attending school, I clearly remember drug prevention and sexual education programs, but no groups discussing mental health. Popularizing such organizations only makes sense, especially given the exorbitantly high suicide rates amongst high school students. If students understand what they are feeling to be symptoms of a potentially serious medical condition that can be treated, this risk of suicide would greatly decrease. Also, if they feel comfortable seeking help without fear of typecasting, they are more likely to get the help necessary to treat their diseases.
Another popular argument holds that mental illnesses should be treated like “any other disease.” While I agree that it should be treated like a disease, comparing it to other physical diseases is futile given how inherently different the two types of diseases are. One clear difference lies in our understanding of how each type of disease develops. The science behind common physical diseases like AIDS and cancer is fairly well known, but there is still much debate on why common mental illnesses arise. This could explain why many are still skeptical that they actually exist. Another clear difference would be that mental illnesses are significantly more personal than physical diseases. For example, a mentally related diagnosis is only shared with close trusted friends and family, and personal articles about mental health are shrouded in anonymity. We need to understand these fragile differences intrinsically associated with mental illness before we are ready to successfully discuss how to improve mental health initiatives.
Perhaps the most pitying and disheartening characteristic of many people diagnosed with mental illness is that they blame themselves for their condition. My hope is that America makes a sincere effort to change its views on mental health, so that mental health patients no longer feel any shame. Fifty years ago this past February, President John F. Kennedy opened a charged discussion on mental health practices in the United States that led to a series of improvements in this field. While we have made progress, there is still more that needs to be done to ensure people with mental illnesses are both properly heard and well-respected. The stigmatization, the fear, and the prejudices against people with mental illness need to end before any substantive progress can be made in this field.
Gina Yu ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a biomedical engineering concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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