I know lots of people who were too woke for the Olympics this year. But now they all have an opinion on Olympic gymnastics.
In the last week mental health has been in the forefront of America’s mind because Simone Biles removed herself from Olympic competition for mental health reasons.
But that conversation had already been going on because of Naomi Osaka who refused to speak to the press at the French Open because of mental health reasons and ultimately withdrew from that tournament.
Mental health is on everyone’s radar. Michael Phelps is on television telling us all “it’s okay to not be okay.”
And even outside of the sports arena, the dramatic and emotional story of Brittany Spears’ custodianship and her abuse is bringing the issue of mental health to the center of many public conversations.
Mental health, which has become an increasingly more public and important issue for younger Millennials and Generation Z, is suddenly the cause du jour.
There has long been a stigma around mental health issues. For years any hints of mental health problems were hushed up or pushed away because they were seen as a weakness, a moral failing, or a deficit that made a person completely broken. People tried to hide their emotional and mental problems or “tough it out.” Previous generations often viewed emotional and mental health as a matter of “toughness” or “weakness,” when in reality, it’s a matter of health.
According to the American Psychiatric Association,
More than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders. Often, people avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or fears of losing their jobs and livelihood. That’s because stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness is still very much a problem.
Researchers identify different types of stigma:
- There is a public stigma, which involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness. People with mental illness are seen as dangerous, incompetent, to blame for their disorder, and unpredictable. Therefore, employers may not hire them, landlords may not rent to them, or the health care system may offer a lower standard of care.
- There is a self-stigma, which refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people with mental illness have about their own condition. They may think, “I am dangerous, or incompetent, I am to blame.” These thoughts lead to lowered self-esteem and self-efficacy. They may think, “Why try? Someone like me is not worthy of good health.”
- There is institutional stigma; it is more systemic- involving policies of government and private organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. Examples include lower funding for mental illness research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care. Stereotypes can be embodied in laws and other institutions. There is intended and unintended loss of opportunity.
The APA also notes that
Media representations of people with mental illness can influence perceptions and stigma, and they have often been negative, inaccurate or violent representations. A study published in April 2020 looked at a recent example, the popular film Joker (2019), which portrays the lead character as a person with mental illness who becomes extremely violent. The study found that viewing the film “was associated with higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness.” Additionally, the authors suggest, “Joker may exacerbate self-stigma for those with a mental illness, leading to delays in help seeking.”
The stigma of mental illness is universal. A 2016 study on stigma concluded “there is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness.
The Lancet observes that harmful effects of stigmatizing mental health issues can include:
- Reluctance to seek help or treatment and less likely to stay with treatment
- Social isolation
- Lack of understanding by family, friends, coworkers, or others
- Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing
- Bullying, physical violence or harassment
- Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental illness treatment
- The belief that you’ll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation
There is also a difference in gender when it comes to mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, but men are more likely to die from suicide. Some of this may be due to the fact that women are more likely to acknowledge and seek help for their mental and emotional needs.
According to the American Psychological Association,
When it comes to mental illness, the sexes are different: Women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.
Published online in APA’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology®, the study looked at the prevalence by gender of different types of common mental illnesses. The researchers also found that women with anxiety disorders are more likely to internalize emotions, which typically results in withdrawal, loneliness and depression. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize emotions, which leads to aggressive, impulsive, coercive and noncompliant behavior. The researchers demonstrated that it was differences in these liabilities to internalize and to externalize that accounted for gender differences in prevalence rates of many mental disorders.
According to the World Health Organization,
- Gender bias occurs in the treatment of psychological disorders. Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.
- A female gender is a significant predictor of being prescribed mood altering psychotropic drugs.
- Gender differences exist in patterns of help seeking for psychological disorders. Women are more likely to seek help from and disclose mental health problems to their primary health care physician while men are more likely to seek specialist mental health care and are the principal users of inpatient care.
- Men are more likely than women to disclose problems with alcohol use to their health care provider.
- Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men, appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain help seeking along stereotypical lines. They are a barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of psychological disorders.
- Despite these differences, most women and men experiencing emotional distress and /or psychological disorders are neither identified or treated by their doctor.
One demographic that is especially haunted by mental health issues is college students. The upheaval caused by dramatic life changes, the stress of school, the social changes, and for many the social isolation of college, is causing a mental health crisis of young adults on college campuses across America. This was already in full swing but was exacerbated in the last year by the pandemic as everything they knew was thrown into a tailspin and school suddenly became even more isolating, challenging, and the rewards seemed even harder to see.
As Kat J. McAlpine reports,
A survey by a Boston University researcher of nearly 33,000 college students across the country reveals the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people continues to increase, now reaching its highest levels, a sign of the mounting stress factors due to the coronavirus pandemic, political unrest, and systemic racism and inequality.
“Half of students in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety,” says Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a Boston University mental health researcher and a co–principal investigator of the nationwide survey, which was administered online during the fall 2020 semester through the Healthy Minds Network. The survey further reveals that 83 percent of students said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance within the past month, and that two-thirds of college students are struggling with loneliness and feeling isolated—an all-time high prevalence that reflects the toll of the pandemic and the social distancing necessary to control it.
Lipson, a BU School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, says the survey’s findings underscore the need for university teaching staff and faculty to put mechanisms in place that can accommodate students’ mental health needs.
If there was a group that was in worse shape than the students, it was educators themselves. Their jobs were completely upended, many of them had to totally redefine themselves and their relationships to their students with little to no support, they were working longer hours, they were being scapegoated by angry parents and politicians, and in some areas their very lives were being put in danger.
Catherine Gewerts reports in Education Week on a survey of educators,
The consulting group McKinsey & Co. surveyed 1,000 employers, and 90 percent reported that the pandemic was affecting the behavioral health of their employees. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that rates of anxiety and depression have quadrupled during COVID-19.
RAND Corporation researchers found that between May and October 2020, the proportion of K-12 educators seriously worried about burnout rose from one quarter to 57 percent. In another study, those researchers found that one-quarter of teachers said they were likely to leave the profession when they finish the 2020-21 school year, a rate that—if it were to materialize—would be more than triple the normal rate of attrition.
Shefali Luthra reports that
Last August, the National Education Association, a major teachers union, found that 28% of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave teaching. A study from Louisiana tracked early childhood educators’ mental health last spring, finding that rates of depression almost doubled, with more than a third of those educators indicating depressive symptoms. In a survey from August to September by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the vast majority of teachers reported working longer hours, and only a quarter said their school offered adequate support for mental health.
At the nexus of this problem you find college professors, who are often on the front line of the mental health war for young adults. Professors, especially professors of small classes, so often contingent faculty or faculty of classes like speech or writing, where there is a small instructor to student ratio, are often some of the most stressed-out professors on campus. Their mental health is already precarious to begin with. And it is these professors that students come to with their own mental health problems. Many students don’t go to the campus counseling center with a problem but go to the authority figure they feel they know the best, and that is often their writing or their speech professor. This might be an assistant professor, but more often than not is an adjunct or even a TA. Professors find themselves in the role of counselor and therapist a frightening amount of times throughout the year, and they are not trained to do that. It is not part of their job. And yet that is who students come to. So instructors, who are dealing with their own anxieties and burn-out, often find themselves bearing the brunt of their students’ emotional problems before they can convince them to go to the counseling center. It is a well-known trade secret that if you are going to teach small, especially intro-level classes, you can expect to be somebody’s counselor.
What the response to the Simone Biles incident tells us, besides the fact that certain white, conservative people can’t handle a Black woman with agency, is that the rhetoric around mental health is changing. Yes, Biles has her detractors. That is inevitable. But more importantly, there is a resounding chorus of people telling her critics to back off. Countless editorials have been penned saying Simone Biles doesn’t owe us anything. Facebook posts and Tweets and IG posts from all corners are coming in to say that Simone Biles deserves to take care of herself – and she’s not selfish or weak. It’s not inherently bad to say, “Hold up, I need a moment.”
What IS a problem is that it is a privilege. I encourage you to take a moment, or even a day for your mental health when you need it. But we need to acknowledge that taking a mental health day is distinctly privileged activity. You can’t do that if you are an hourly worker. You can’t address your mental health if your insurance doesn’t cover that kind of care. If you’re going to be harshly penalized by a boss or a teacher or by payroll for trying to recover from your anxiety, depression, or anger, then chances are you won’t recover from it. It will just stay there with you. And that’s how it gets worse, and we end up with people in crisis.
People who have the opportunity to address their mental health are the privileged few. And that’s a problem. Because we don’t take it seriously ( I mean, we can’t even get decent regular health insurance in this country), our emotional and mental well-being is always on a knife’s edge. And the precarity of environmental collapse and the decline of capitalism is just feeding right into that.
As Generation Z moves into the work force, mental and emotional health will become an even more important issue, because they take it so seriously. The likes of Biles and Osaka will become less controversial and more commonplace.
But until mental health care becomes something we can all access and not just something the privileged have access to a mental health day will always be controversial because it will be something that only the privileged can do. We don’t just need to take care of our emotions. We need to democratize their care.
Just a note before we sign off today: Our next episode will be on Tuesday August 17th. It will be a part of the annual Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival. The theme of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is “Contending with Misinformation in the Community and the Classroom” and it takes place August 16-19, 2021. If you like this podcast, check out the other podcasts that will be a part of this year’s carnival. There are some good folks doing some good work out there.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.