Editorial: Dusting off the shelves

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As the young woman massages shampoo into her scalp, the bathroom door, blurred behind the translucent shower curtain, creaks open. An abstract figure emerges from the darkness beyond, growing closer and clearer with each silent second.

With a sudden, screeching flourish of violins, violas and cellos, the figure rips the curtain aside, revealing the silhouetted form of an old woman wielding a butcher knife, ready for the kill.

We’re all familiar with this notoriously iconic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror flick Psycho. The tale of a motel manager with dissociative identity disorder, often referred to as “multiple personality disorder,” Psycho shaped the horror and slasher film genres — as well as, arguably, popular conceptions of mental health and mental illness. While we don’t exactly expect all those struggling with mental well-being to creep up behind us while wearing their mothers’ clothing, we’re rather quick to judge such people as “schizo,” “crazy,” “loony” or “mental.”

Our culture has a tendency to present and interpret mental health at only its extremes. Indeed, we can hardly hold conversations about mental health at all. Sex, religion and politics are known to constitute the holy trinity of taboo topics for polite conversation — but it’s time we acknowledge that this trinity is truly a quartet.

Why is that the case?

More than anything else, our silence on the matter is likely fueled by the stigma and resulting discrimination associated with mental health. As journalist Andrew Solomon says, “people think it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness…a failing. If it’s their children who have mental illnesses, they think it reflects their failure as parents.” We don’t want others to perceive us as vulnerable, weak, lesser. To think we’re not self-sufficient. That there’s something holding us back. That we’re crippled in some unfixable way.

Or worse — to use what we can’t wholly control as a weapon against us.

When someone has a cold, he or she can slurp some chicken noodle soup, chug a gallon of orange juice, down some Tylenol and be back in tip-top shape within a few days. Break an arm, and the cast that all your friends sign in multicolored Sharpie will mend it in a couple months. Develop a rash, and that ointment from your dermatologist clears it up in a trice. But get diagnosed with depression, and there’s hardly a simple remedy.

What could cause something that feels — or may be — so permanent?

Must be me, we think. There’s something sick, addled, twisted about me. As neuroscientist Sarah Caddick put it in her 2012 TEDGlobal presentation, “the minute you start talking about your mind, people get very anxious, because we associate that with being who we are, fundamentally with ‘us’ — us as a person, us as an individual, our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, our aspirations, our everything.”

Mental health conditions manifest themselves in different ways for different people, and their symptoms aren’t nearly as easy to pinpoint as those for a physical illness or injury. But the fact remains that those conditions are hardly rare. According to a 2013 study of college students by the American College Health Association, 57 percent of women and 40 percent of men reported experiencing episodes of “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. Furthermore, suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students, and 11 percent of college students meet criteria for some form of learning disability. Beyond that, a 2006 survey by the National Eating Disorders Association found that nearly 20 percent of the more than 1,000 college students surveyed said they had, or previously had, eating disorders. With our schoolwork, research, work-study jobs, meetings, practices, applications, job interviews, social lives — in short, our never-ending list of obligations and paired stresses — the statistics are sadly believable.

But we should no longer attempt to stow away conversations concerning something so prevalent on dusty, abandoned shelves in the cellars of social interaction.

Instead, we must start talking about mental disorders the way we talk about other medical disorders. We shouldn’t deem a person with anorexia “an anorexic.” Rather, we should say that that person has anorexia, and in doing so, acknowledge that the illness is something the person is suffering from or living with — a separate entity from the person themselves.

Even with greater social freedom to discuss mental health, we’re unlikely to be able to completely eradicate its associated issues. Sparking the discussion, however, may allow us to lift the burden of alienation from those affected, as well as encourage them to openly seek the help they need — and remind us that the notion of a “psycho” belongs strictly in Hollywood fiction.

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1 Comment

  1. —-More than anything else, our silence on the matter is likely fueled by the stigma and resulting discrimination associated with mental health.

    It was you who invoked a stigma, and you alone responsible for having done so.

    —-As journalist Andrew Solomon says, “people think it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness…a failing. If it’s their children who have mental illnesses, they think it reflects their failure as parents.”

    The term “people” is indefinable. It can mean two, two hundred, any number. It is always a safe choice:

    —-People people think the opposite of the above.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

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