College may very well be the best four years of a person’s life, but reports show that college students are more stressed out nowadays than they have ever been before. This stress creates a breeding ground for mental health ailments, with approximately 37 percent of college students having depression, anxiety or stress. In recognition of this so-called epidemic, Daily Bruin blogger Appurva Goel will be delving into this phenomenon and investigating the major issues and stigmas that affect the mental health of college students, as well as recapping what resources UCLA students can seek out for help.
In 2014, my friend of 11 years broke off contact with me when she was clinically diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder – a diagnosis which I was unaware of until she talked me to about it approximately a year and a half later.
After she told me about her diagnosis, I remember telling her that the fact that she thought my image of her would change because of her illness hurt more than anything else. I thought we ended the conversation on good terms, but later found she had burst into tears while talking to a mutual friend, because she thought I was trivializing her illness.
Her reaction baffled me. But I now realize that her outburst might not have been caused by my words but by her deep-rooted self-stigma about her condition.
The stigmatization of mental illness is a known problem, but often while addressing stigmatization, we tend to concentrate more on public stigma and less on self-stigma – two related but essentially independent problems.
Public stigma is the collective negative prejudices against people suffering from mental illnesses. This prejudice often translates into discrimination – the most prominent manifestation being withholding jobs, housing opportunities or professional help for their illness.
Self-stigma, on the other hand, refers to the negative opinions that a person suffering from a mental illness has about themselves. Self-stigma’s internalized nature makes it highly dangerous. Because people fear the negative connotations that their illness carries, self-stigma may cause people to repress their condition, withdraw from friends and family and refuse to carry on with their daily functioning.
Self-stigma directly targets self-esteem and self-efficacy and thus impacts behavior. Studies show that people suffering from self-stigma feel that they are less deserving of jobs or living independently. It acts as a persuasive tool that convinces people that they have a lesser value than “normal” or “functional” members of society.
But due to the increasing surface level normalization of mental illnesses because of the lopsided destigmatization of these two facets of mental illness, people’s behavior due to their self-assumed inferior status can sometimes be mistaken as using their mental illness as “excuse.” Any reluctance to get help or seek opportunities has the potential of being viewed by society as an attempt to hide behind mental illness.
This paradox created by public acceptance of mental illness versus the implicit stigma that an individual may subject themselves to is, perhaps, most acutely seen in the liberal atmosphere of a college campus.
Typically, college students pride themselves of accepting everything and everyone – but in striving for inclusivity, we often ironically tend to disregard the varied backgrounds that college students come from.
Self-stigma primarily develops due to negative connotations that people were exposed to in their childhood. Thus, while college students may currently be in an inclusive environment, the attitude towards mental illness in their previous hometown or among family may have been different and still be influencing their self-perception.
However, that is not to say that all people who were exposed to stigmatization in their childhood currently stigmatize mental illnesses. Self-stigma, as mentioned before, deals more with a person’s critical opinion of their own character for developing a mental illness than with the image of mental illnesses itself. Self-stigma questions the “strength” of a person’s character for developing the illness in the first place.
Thus, when people develop a mental illness at a later stage, these deep-seated negative associations of mental illness resurface. Consequently, while a student may be grappling with feelings of inadequacy caused by self-stigma, their friends may think differently.
This clash is often evident when people become aware of another person’s mental illness. Upon discovering a friend’s mental issues or observing a pattern of worrisome behavior, most students will immediately try and convince their friend to seek medical help. Some might even offer to take their friends to Counseling and Psychological Services.
However, the friend in question may not always want to do so. They may brush off their condition – calling it a “bad” or an “off” day. Or they may say they just wanted to vent. While this might come across as them trivializing or ignoring their own problem, their reluctance may stem directly or indirectly from self-stigma.
This reluctance may stem from implicit stigma, because the friend might view a clinical diagnosis as evidence; evidence for a thought that was till then just a rumination in their mind. Maybe in their heads, this clinical label will enforce the reality of the “burden” of a mental disease upon them.
Or they might have fallen prey to the “why try” model which directly breeds from their lack of self-efficiency and self-efficacy.
Instances like these just show how truly complex self-stigma can be and how easy it can be to develop wrong assumptions because of it. Ignorance about self-stigma may, in fact, propagate stigmatization of a different kind.
Destigmatization of mental illness cannot simply be achieved by accepting that mental illnesses exist or that mental illnesses are normal. The path to destigmatization is a long arduous one and the mere acceptance of mental illnesses as normal is the just the first step of this journey.