Illustration: Julia Fernandez

A classmate of mine was recently presenting a paper to our writing class. It addressed many of her struggles with mental health and how she was able to push through them to be the person she is today. Hearing it would have been fantastic for the class, but the professor’s question did not allow the student to get past the introductory paragraph.

“Would you like to talk about this in private?”

The professor’s heart may have been in the right place, but there’s still a problem with this situation. In trying to bring the topic of mental health into an everyday conversation, the student attempted to chip away at a longstanding stigma. The professor, not being ready for the change, shut her down.

I may only be a first year psychology student, but you don’t need even my level of knowledge to notice the growing mental health crisis in our society. During the pandemic, mental health has been on a steady decline. A study released by the World Health Organization shows that “in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.” One potential first step to fix this would be to open up about this crisis and ask people what they believe needs to be done. But the problem is, too few people want to raise this question or give an answer. This topic of conversation has been identified as taboo for so long that it makes people uncomfortable. However, if all we did was avoid uncomfortable things, we would only be creating more problems for ourselves.

Jeff Palma

We’re so used to being told that discussions of mental health must be private that we may not even recognize the censoring that is occurring. In any problematic situation, the first step in creating the solution is recognizing that there is a problem to begin with. While forcing our children, teens, and young adults to put on a “happy face” at all times, we downplay the severity of these issues by suggesting that they can simply be ignored. This creates a hostile environment when people then try to seek help for these issues, and it even discourages people from going to therapy as a resource.

According to a recent poll, “47% of the respondents believe seeking therapy is a sign of weakness.” A discussion of the poll in a Forbes article also uses a follow up statistic that seems meant to give a more positive spin: “yet only a quarter (27%) have never been to a therapist in their lifetime, which suggests that mental health care has become a more common experience for many Americans than previously assumed.” I believe this statistic is even scarier than the first one, as it shows that the people who are doing the right thing in trying to get themselves help still feel a sense of weakness whilst doing it.

I genuinely would like to know if there is any other sickness where this same idea prevails. Would it not sound silly for someone to say “I know my doctor gave me this medication to cure my strep throat, but I’m not gonna take it because my friends will think I’m inferior?” So why then is it okay when it comes to mental health? Despite the “sickness” not being visible all the time, it is still just as severe as something like strep throat or the flu; it can even be lethal if dealt with for a sustained period of time.

It is not only the patients who play into this stigma around the counseling community. A neighbor once told me a story about a personal experience she had in therapy. After her session, as she peered through the glass pane of her therapist’s door, she noticed someone she knew sitting in the waiting room. She mentioned this to her therapist, and to offer her a sense of comfort, the therapist suggested she exit through the back door to prevent her friend from seeing her.

Fascinating, is it not? Even the therapist working in the industry fails to recognize how they too contribute to this stigma. By understanding that one may not want to be seen in a therapist’s office, the therapist is the one to suggest an aura of shame. Not to mention, these two people are in the exact same situation, and still there is a perceived awkwardness in a second-long passing between appointments. That is a problem.

So next time you’re looking for an icebreaker around the family dinner table, feel free to ask everyone how they are holding up mentally these days. It will not only make for interesting and productive conversation, but enable us humans to be more open to emotional vulnerability and the idea that it is okay to be not okay. When you are willing and feel confident to get the help you need, we know we are taking big steps toward rendering this stigma nonexistent.

Jeff Palma is an undergraduate psychology major at Sacred Heart University who hopes to enter the counseling field.