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The Quad: Professionals, club leaders discuss methods to combat mental health stigma

Members of UCLA Active Minds, a club dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental illness, pose for a photo during a club social. Many mental and physical illnesses are stigmatized, which can undermine the legitimacy of these issues. (Courtesy of UCLA Active Minds)

By Emily Samuels

Jan. 19, 2022 6:26 p.m.

We have all likely heard the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But when it comes to those with mental and physical health conditions, many people tend to compare, contrast and stigmatize these illnesses.

Benjamin Toubia, assistant professor of psychology at the Los Angeles Campus of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said that stigma is a way of thinking about a topic as it was understood in the past, even if our understanding of the topic has changed over time.

“When it comes to mental health stigma for young adults, … because our understanding of mental health in general and the mind in general is changing so rapidly right now, what students are learning about the topic of mental health is different than probably what the people who raised them do about mental health,” Toubia said.

Janna Shakiba, a third-year neuroscience student and co-director of mentor and mentee relations for UCLA Wazo Connect – a club that provides support for students hoping to improve their mental health – said the main difference between mental and physical health is visibility.

“We’re interacting with everyone, and we just have no idea if someone is struggling with mental health or not because we can’t see it,” Shakiba said. “With a physical illness, it’s usually much more obvious.”

Shakiba added that the general invisibility of mental health can lead people to delegitimize mental illness, whereas those with physical injuries are typically cared for swiftly and sufficiently.

“Other people aren’t acknowledging (mental illness) the same way that they would with a physical ailment,” Shakiba said. “And so that can make them think, … ‘This is just in my head, and there’s no point in bringing it up or seeking treatment.’”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness do not receive professional treatment.

Shakiba said people with physical ailments may be more likely to get help because they feel the cause was out of their control, whereas people struggling with mental illness may feel responsible and fear potential judgment.

“If you break your leg, … or if you’re struggling with another physical sickness, it’s just not really something that was in your control. So when it happens, it seems much more reasonable to go get help,” Shakiba said. “With a mental illness, I think there is that idea of, ‘This was maybe my fault, and if I bring it up, people are going to judge me.'”

Toubia said that because clinicians have a more robust understanding of what constitutes physical health and physical ability, they have an easier time diagnosing physical health issues.

“As we learn more and more about the mind and its relationship to our daily functioning, we are going to be able to better diagnose diagnoses and develop new diagnoses,” Toubia said. “So it might very well feel to society and to people that more and more people are developing mental health diagnoses, which would be a perversion of reality because all we’re doing is getting better at diagnosing.”

Fourth-year psychobiology student and co-director of events for Active Minds at UCLA Ahmed Mahmood said that rather than comparing, it is important to understand that mental and physical health are closely connected.

“When we make judgments about someone’s body, we also make judgments about who they are as a person,” Mahmood said. “And I don’t think it’s ever fair to try and compare the stigma that one group faces versus the stigma that another group faces.”

Psychology professor Gregory Miller said people can often make generalizations and judgments about others’ health issues despite not being fully aware of their situations.

“You don’t know their story,” Miller said. “And there’s things about whole groups of people you don’t know enough about – their story, their circumstances.”

Miller said, for example, rather than blaming someone for having lung cancer as a result of smoking, people should consider the possibility that the individual worked in a job with unhealthy air quality or did not have preventative knowledge about lung cancer at the time.

Toubia said there is a trifecta of methods to debunk stigma: visibility, education and community. He said visibility refers to normalizing mental health conversation, education refers to educating ourselves on the complexity of mental health, and community refers to creating space for community to be experienced.

“Creating opportunities for people to come together in safe ways to talk about the complexity of our humanity is the most important thing we can do, not just for our mental health, but for society in general for all our collective well-being,” Toubia said.

Mahmood said once we acknowledge our personal struggles, we can better serve others and their needs.

“The moment we start to take care of ourselves … is the moment we start to take care of other people too,” Mahmood said. “Because once we know what it feels like to be cared for, whether it is by somebody else or by ourselves, we want to spread that feeling.”

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Emily Samuels
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