Rape culture is a frequent topic of discussion and interest, but what about culture around mental illnesses? Plenty has been written about the stigma attached to mental illness, but at the same time, we all sort of joke about having it. Think about how people say their OCD is acting up when they see a crooked painting, or how being angsty has turned into depression. I worked at a summer camp this past summer, and there were kids who were heavily medicated—taking maybe five different medications each day—and they were eight! They didn’t even know what depression was, and yet they were being medicated for it. Their parents believed something was wrong and got a doctor to prescribe medication for this perceived problem. Admittedly, some of them may actually have had a mental illness, but I don’t think the answer is medicating them into a stupor.
Commercials and ads for depression medication are everywhere these days, and some things, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or ADD/ADHD, have become the fodder of everyday conversations. At some point or another, most of us have joked that we have one or the other because of something silly or compulsive we do.
The commercials, I think, are an attempt to make having depression something not to be ashamed of, and perhaps to encourage sufferers to seek help. On the other hand, joking about serious conditions makes it more difficult to sympathize with someone truly afflicted by it. When someone says they have OCD, you say, oh, yeah, me too. But for them, it may mean a potentially crippling obsession with having a routine. It’s a part of their life, not just something which occasionally crops up when seeing something bothersome.
We’re caught in a phase that’s between getting rid of the stigma and turning it into a joke. At the same time, many people still think that mental illness is one of those things that you can just sort of get over, like the flu. That if you take your medication faithfully, you’ll be fine in no time. How do you convince those people that it’s not just a phase, not just something you get over? Things like depression and bipolar disorder are real illnesses, brought on by real biological issues. They’re not things that can be fixed by a pill, just treated with one. It’s hard to make mental illnesses relatable and something to sympathize with without jeopardizing its seriousness. How does one go about reconciling this goal with its unintended consequence? Is it even possible?
A similar thing has happened with the recent publicity about Celiac Disease. That doesn’t sound familiar? That makes sense, because most people who claim to feel its effects don’t actually know what it’s called. Celiac Disease is the inability to process gluten. Sound familiar now? People have jumped on the bandwagon and turned gluten-free eating into a fad.
There’s gluten-free everything, from brownies to pasta. Yet the number of people who actually suffer from it is not that many. Some people do it for the health benefits…which probably are none. Gluten is part of a natural healthy diet. If you don’t know what it is and where it’s found, you’re probably not “allergic” to it. (It’s also not an allergy; it’s an intolerance, like those who can’t process lactose.) When things like canned peas are labeled as gluten-free, it makes me a little upset, because if you actually have Celiac disease, you probably know that peas don’t have a drop of gluten. So why label them that way? I feel like it’s there just to attract the interest of supposedly healthy eaters.
It seems, these days, that most people are either hypochondriacs or disbelievers. How can you blame the skeptics when at least a solid portion of so-called afflictees don’t really have anything at all? We’re stuck in this interminable limbo where we want to support sufferers, but don’t want people to abuse the system. Whether there is a way to solve this dilemma remains unclear, and probably will until the current medical system is fixed, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. So for now, be supportive of those who suffer from mental illness, but use some common sense.
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is a prospective independent major.