Mental Health Stigmas

By Ryan Schofield, Legal Intern and Sandra Wisnewski, J.D., Director of Client Assistance at Elder Law of Michigan

What do you imagine would be the reaction to someone discussing their mental health issues openly 50 years ago? Was it, “What are you, some kind of loon?” Or possibly, “You’re going to see a shrink?” While some people may have been receptive to discussing mental health, it’s likely that the conversation was shunned, and even more likely that the discussion never even took place. Whatever the reaction may have been then, today it’s much more likely to be a topic that is accepted and openly discussed.

According to the organization Care For Your Mind, people who came of age before and during the 1960s have a perception of historic shame and are ignorant about mental illness and psychological problems, so mental health stigmas tend to be stronger amongst these individuals. Care For Your Mind reports, according to research, that older adults are more likely to be less comfortable with mental health issues than younger people. The organization notes that while mental health stigmas are starting to fade in many aspects of society, older adults continue to struggle with mental health and often go without adequate care due to stigma, misinformation, and false beliefs. Open discussions about mental health have started to become more acceptable in society, however, older adults still face many issues when addressing their mental health needs.

Mental health issues have seemingly become more accepted as a normal and treatable issue. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) has reported that Millennials and younger adults view mental health differently than older generations. The primary difference is how accepting and open people are with their mental health issues. NAMI believes that this is due to friends, coworkers, and peers openly discussing their mental health issues. This makes people feel comfortable discussing their own issues. Hearing people talk about similar health issues lets individuals know that they are not alone, that others are going through the same issues, and that there are ways to address those issues. This sentiment, echoed in research done by the American Psychological Association (APA), found that peer educators are an effective way to address perceived public and internalized stigmas about mental health. 

The theory of addressing mental health stigma through peers seems to be an effective tool. Several mental health studies address this idea, but I believe this because of my personal experience. Several years ago, like others, I believed some of these stigmas. I thought that seeing a therapist was a waste of money and that people with anxiety or depression were just being weak in how they dealt with their problems. However, as I became more aware of the world, and began to hear discussions about mental health, my opinion evolved.

My views on mental health probably began to change when my brother was diagnosed with anxiety. When he was first dealing with his anxiety, I thought that it was a phase he was going through and that he was simply not dealing well with growing up and getting more responsibilities. I would try to talk to my brother, not really to ask him what he was going through, but more so to advise him that feeling nervous is normal and that he could work through it. I believed that he was feeling the same kind of anxiety that everyone feels and he was just not handling it properly. My perception started to change when I finally listened to how he felt.

My brother had just gotten his driving permit and was practicing with my mom. I’m sure my mom was nervous, being a passenger with a new driver, and when my brother nearly ran a red light, my mom screamed for him to brake. My brother slammed on the brakes and sat there frozen in his seat. Between my mom’s frightened scream and a scary close call, my brother said that his anxiety kicked in the worst it had ever been.

My brother described this experience to me as, being frozen with anxiety. He said that he was physically frozen to his seat and couldn’t move, let alone keep driving. After a minute of sitting there, my mom was able to switch seats with him and she drove the rest of the way home. When my brother told me this story, I began to realize this wasn’t something that everyone feels, this was something that literally debilitated him in that moment. I was so ignorant at the time, that debilitating anxiety was something I hadn’t even realized was possible. After that, I realized this feeling is serious and should probably be addressed with a professional. 

My brother raised my awareness about the seriousness of mental health issues and about the importance of getting proper help. However, I didn’t realize how relevant it was until several years later in college. In college I met many people who have or had mental health struggles, including some of my roommates. They talked about their experiences, how professionals helped them identify their illnesses, and how to live with and handle those illnesses. Talking to and meeting so many people who were just like me and were going through mental health issues brought the matter into perspective and made me more aware of mental health. Meeting peers who were dealing with these issues really erased my previous stigmas.

While my brother and peers were instrumental in raising my awareness about mental health, I believe that media and society has also made me more aware of this issue. It seems like mental health is no longer an unusual topic to see or read about in the news. Mental health is discussed in relation to crime, poverty, and even politics.

One of the most significant changes I’ve noticed in mainstream society that has had a positive impact on how I and others view mental health is the discussion about mental health from prominent athletes and celebrities. A recent example can be seen in the NBA when several superstars began openly discussing their own mental health issues. DeMar DeRozan was one of the first to come out and admit his struggles with depression. Kevin Love followed his lead and openly discussed his issues with anxiety.

Kevin Love’s statement in the Players Tribune, describes one of his experiences with anxiety where he had a panic attack at half-time of a regular season game and was so overcome with anxiety that he couldn’t leave the locker room to play the second half. During this event, he described feeling abnormally out of breath, his heart began racing, his brain felt like it was going to climb out of his head, then he could barely breath and couldn’t physically re-enter the game.

Kevin Love was a college star at UCLA, an NBA All-Star, an NBA Champion, and an Olympic Gold Medalist, yet he was physically debilitated and unable to play basketball as a result of his anxiety. When such an accomplished and professional person can be open about the mental health issues they’re facing it makes it acceptable for everyone to talk about mental health issues. It also makes skeptical people more aware that issues like this can affect anyone, from an NBA super star in a basketball game, to a 15-year-old boy learning to drive.

I believe that the acceptance and openness many young adults experience today with mental health can be experienced by older generations. It appears that the key to breaking down mental health stigmas with older generations may be to educate them on mental health through their peers and people with whom they can relate. In schools across the country, young students interact with each other and learn that these issues are normal and acceptable. They also hear this from co-workers, peers, and even on the media.

Older adults may be more receptive to addressing mental health issues if they talk to and learn from their peers who deal with these issues. Learning from peers can make mental issues more relatable to them and easier to understand. Too many older adults still have negative stigmas about mental health. This is unhealthy for the overall conversation about mental health, and perhaps more importantly, it is unhealthy for the older individuals who don’t address their own mental health issues as a result of negative stigmas. Many older adults are negatively impacted by stigmas because they are too afraid, embarrassed, or simply ignorant to seek help. Hopefully, between the societal trend of accepting mental illness more, combined with older adults talking to and learning from their peers, more older adults will become aware and accepting of mental health issues.

For more information on mental health stigmas and how to address mental health with older adults, check out the information provided by the World Health Organization.

Ryan Schofield is a Legal Intern at Elder Law of Michigan and has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since March 2018. Under the supervision of licensed attorneys, Ryan assists Michigan seniors on the legal hotline in over 30 areas of law, including Estate Planning, Medicaid, Consumer Debt, and Property. 

Sandra Wisnewski is an Attorney and the Director of Client Assistance with Elder Law of Michigan. Sandra has been a staff member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since 2010. As Director of Client Assistance, Sandra manages the day to day operations of the hotline and the pension department and helps clients who call for legal assistance.