It seems like many young people have no real understanding of mental illnesses. Any young adult who faces trivial things like some kind of admonishing from a parent, harsh criticism from a professor, or heartbreak from a significant other, decides that the resulting temporary sadness is actually depression. There are reasons behind this, writes Farhat Afzal
Scrolling down my social media newsfeed, I had been seeing many people taking the so-called OCD test. It’s a type of online quiz that tells you what percentage of obsessive compulsive disorder you have. This bothered me. OCD is a serious mental issue. How can one detect it by just ticking off answers in some silly quiz? Then I saw a screenshot of a text message on Facebook, where a person compared having regular mood swings to having bipolar disorder. These irked me a great deal. How can we trivialise something as critical and sensitive as mental health?
Last week, I wrote about the stigmatisation of mental health issues in our country and how unprepared we are to deal with them. Thanks to the rise of social media and youth-oriented platforms like Tumblr, young people are becoming vocal about mental health issues. This is a great opportunity for all those who are suffering from mental illness. When someone is feeling lonely, isolated or suicidal, they can log in to these online communities and hear from people who had been through similar situations. Additionally, people themselves can voice their thoughts on what they are feeling, and that certainly helps ease the mind of those who are suffering. Just getting a few things off of your chest makes one feel lighter and less burdened.
However, some people misuse this opportunity. While mental illness can be a very real threat to the well-being of today’s youth, it is also true that some unaffected people give the impression they are suffering from it as well. Many young people today get excessively concerned regarding their mood swings, sadness, anger and other emotional experiences common at this age. Ultimately, due to lack of knowledge, they tend to equate this with mental health issues.
It seems like many young people have no real understanding of mental illnesses. Any young adult who faces trivial things like some kind of admonishing from a parent, harsh criticism from a professor, or heartbreak from a significant other, decides that the resulting temporary sadness is actually depression. There are reasons behind this. Some online communities glorify mental illness and label things like suicidal thoughts, depression, and self-harm as romantic, dark or deep. And today’s youth want those labels. Hence, they self-diagnose their problem as depression or some other mental illness. Dr. Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert and the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, says that ‘People use the word “depression” if they can’t find their keys, or if they’ve had a fight with their parents, or if they’ve had an argument with their boyfriend or girlfriend, if they didn’t make the school team or didn’t do well on an exam. When we use the word “depression” for every negative emotional state, the word loses its meaning.”
Sadly, a large segment of today’s pop culture romanticises such mental disorders too. Young adult fiction and pop songs often talk about anxiety, depression, and self-harm in romantic ways which makes youth crave those feelings. A plethora of young adult novel writers create protagonists dealing with mental health issues, which is well and good, because it is high time that is normalised. But young people often mistake those characteristics as something to admire. Writers often make their characters seem intriguing or quirky and try to reason that he/she is that way because of their mental health issue. This appeals to young readers all over because they all wish to be fixed, to be adored by someone even when they are sad. And so, being broken and unhappy becomes an appealing trait for them to adopt. This is where they have it all wrong. Depression or any other mental illness is not something that can be cured alone by the undying love of another person. It is a real problem that needs help from professionals.
This way of thinking is incredibly damaging, because the more people romanticise and self-diagnose mental illness, the less it is taken seriously. The next time someone posts a black and white image of a pale, scarred wrist, who is to say whether it was a cry for help or a desperate measure to seek attention? Who knows what would happen when such posts are seen by a depressed and suicidal individual who had logged into social media to seek some comfort?
In order to tackle this, awareness must be raised about mental health. The problems arise mostly due to lack of information. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the correct information is spread. The best way to do that, would be to educate young people about mental disorders, and remove the stigma surrounding them. Conferences and seminars can be held where experts as well as those who are suffering can both come together and talk. Sufferers can share their experiences and experts can provide approaches for solutions. This needs to reach out to all people, especially those who are afraid of speaking about these issues in public.
We must encourage talking about these issues in a non-judgmental way. We must never use words like ‘crazy’ or ‘retarded’ as insults. Also, one must learn the early signs and symptoms of common disorders like depression and anxiety so that they can notice and seek help, if their loved ones fall into it.
Another way to discourage people from self-diagnosing is to provide them easy access to professional counselors or therapists. It is important that they know the truth of what they are going through—whether it is a hormonal imbalance that is trigerring mood swings or a serious mental disorder. Even if it is the former, a counselor can help them understand that it is a temporary suffering, how to deal with it and refer them to specialists. This would help the patients differentiate between true mental illness and other, less severe emotional experiences.
Mental illness is not something which makes you mysterious or quirky. There is nothing glamorous, romantic or cool about it. Mental health issues are serious problems and must be treated accordingly. As an informed and educated society, we must understand and accept mental health issues, as well as promote correct ways of dealing with them.
– Farhat Afzal is an architect by qualification and writer by passion.