Battling with Trivialization: Mental illness should not be overlooked

May 1st: the first day of Mental Health Month and a perfect time to start a conversation about mental illness. A day that held a certain purpose. A day that inherently felt important.

After crafting an Instagram post about the purpose of the month—raising awareness and providing resources for people struggling with mental illness—I started to scroll through my feed. And, inevitably, I saw multiple posts about “crazy” people. I saw my friends joking about killing themselves because they don’t like their homework. I received texts from peers jokingly asking how to “fix the fact that they hate themselves.” It all feels a little ironic, right? We take the time that we should be using to focus on one of the most important issues facing teens, and we choose to make jokes.

One in five adults in America experience a mental illness. Ninety percent of those who commit suicide suffer from an underlying mental illness, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people our age. But still, living with mental illness is a constant battle with trivialization. Suicide becomes a joke. Or a poem. Or a Netflix show. To an extent, it’s hard for me to blame my friends for their microaggressions. This is how we’ve been raised.

I’d like to think that it comes from a lack of education. North Carolina’s 2012-2013 curriculum included mental and emotional health, including: “9.MEH.1.2 Plan effective methods to deal with anxiety.”

The lesson objective states, “For those struggling to cope with their anxiety, it may be necessary for them to change their thinking. When stress and anxiety levels rise, one may resort to negative thinking and say to themselves, ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘Why do things like this always happen to me?’ With these negative thoughts, success is almost impossible. By changing one’s negative thoughts to positive ones, such as ‘I can do this,’ young people can improve their self-confidence and come to believe that they can handle a tough situation.”

While this section of curriculum aims to deal with anxiety less severe than diagnosable anxiety disorders, there is little to no integration of mental illness into the discussion. There is a lack of acknowledgement that leaves kids who can’t “fix their thinking” feeling broken. Defective. Inadequate.

The following section, however, does deal with “depression and mental disorders.” But I have to ask, how many times do we have to hear the generic story about the suicidal kid who drops his books on the way home, only to be saved by a helpful passerby whose kindness is the magical cure to his depression? How many times do we present the solution to mental illness as a random act of kindness? As an easy change in thinking? As a one-time fix?

Would you tell someone with a broken leg to walk it off? Would you tell someone with lung cancer to “think about” breathing better? We trivialize people’s struggles just because we can’t always see them. We teach kids that they’re broken if they can’t “handle a tough situation.” We paint mental illness as taboo in every aspect of our lives: in our schools, in our culture, in our media.

Erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Let this serve as a reminder that they’re valid and painful and real, and  they’re more normal than anyone cares to admit. Let’s stop being so afraid to talk about them.

– By Sara Heilman