Oppression accompanies mental health stigma

By Jocelyn Gardner '16
Mental Health Columnist

When I decided to write this issue’s article on the topic of stigma, I was wary of the fact that most people in Claremont probably have an understanding of stigma against mental illness. I was about to scrap the idea — until I made a few disturbing discoveries.
To give some context, I read a large number of resources and articles about mental health. This means I see all of the positive sides of the issue. When looking for resources to compare and add to the blog, of course I see all the support that exists, and I often come across descriptions of stigma and people’s negative experiences (which usually end positively, on these sites). I do not find much in support of the harmful stigmatized views I see in everyday life, despite my certainty of their existence. My point is, I search very specifically to find the helpful results because I know where to search. Instead of discussion on stigma, I wanted to find the beast in its natural habitat. I started looking into this in the most basic of ways: Google.
In Google search, I typed in a few key words to see what autocomplete shows as the most relevant similar searches. For example, the top two autocomplete options for the words “depression is” were “depression is not real” and “depression is a choice.” Top result for “bipolar is” is “bipolar is fake”. A particularly horrifying instance came up with “self harm is”; “Self harm is so stupid,” “self harm is attention seeking,” “self harm is for attention” and “self harm is selfish” were the four autocomplete searches.
It goes without saying that this is offensive in the very least, but this issue is so much larger than the word “stigma” seems to encompass. The word stigma in all its connotations cannot contain the widespread, often internalized and systematic shame, isolation, exclusion, blame, bias and stereotypes. Where have we heard this talk about cycles of oppression before? Social justice. Yes, this is about social justice.
Some of this oppression goes beyond the obvious, however. We have heard of friends turning their backs on people who have come out as having a mental illness but we are often not aware of the deeper lurking problems such as media portrayal and careless language. An example to consider is the way that the media portrays people who have committed violent crimes as “crazy” and point to a mental illness as a cause without necessarily providing further evidence or information that clarifies or explains the mental illness — this leads to misconception.
People who see mental illness as a cause for violence can criminalize people with mental illness and treat them differently. The alleged connection between mental illness and violence is not as strong as media would suggest. According to mentalhealth.gov, “the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.” Since the mental health discussion, as I explained in last issue’s article, is not prevalent by any stretch, the general public is not exposed to material that would correct this view. They might not even realize how inaccurate the information is, since major commercialized news sources are widely regarded as infallible sources.
Another instance of mis-understanding and stigmatization of mental health that comes to mind is the use of trigger warnings. Honestly, I had never heard of a trigger warning until coming to Scripps. In one class I had, the professor asked us if we thought that they were important, and I was surprised at the range of opinions. Of course, upon further reading, the internet is also ambivalent, and many people think that trigger warnings are overblown. Before I get farther into this point, I want to make a few distinctions and reaffirm where the importance of this issue rests. Trigger warnings are a relatively recent way to warn people of possible triggers, which allows writers more freedom to write about intense topics. Triggers are not content that is simply “uncomfortable” or controversial. Trigger responses can include panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks and compulsions among many varied symptoms. Note that these are mental and physical responses that are involuntary and can affect someone hours and even days after exposure to the trigger.
In my class, some students argued that people should know their own triggers and do research themselves to avoid them, as well as that “discomfort” and “challenge” are essential to learning. I do not disagree, nor do I disagree that the “real world’ also does not have trigger warnings.
I understand that there are many cases where people do not use trigger warnings this way and label content incorrectly. Is this really a reason to dismiss trigger warnings for those who need them? How much should these people have to go out of their ways — change the way they live their lives — to protect their own health? More importantly, why should one group of people be allowed to decide what others can or should feel?
The matters I have discussed raise many important questions. I would love for this to be a continuing point of discussion — share your opinions at www.scrippsvoicementalhealth.wordpress.com or the google form, which is linked to on the blog. Comments and submissions are anonymous on both sites. All opinions are welcome and accepted, and as I have said that I have seen a large range when it comes to these topic. I genuinely would like to hear any and all opinions people send to get a better idea of the views in our community.