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For The Sake of Our Health

Mental Health & Medical School

At a time when it is becoming increasingly acceptable to be open and honest about topics which were formerly not discussed – sexual orientation and gender identity for example – to a certain degree, mental illness remains taboo.

While the general population has at least heard about illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, they tend to have a basic understanding at best and a gravely distorted misunderstanding at worst.

I get the impression that people continue to view issues of mental illness as shameful in nature, as if it reflects some sort of character defect rather than a brain disorder. Mental health is something you discuss in hushed conversations with a close friend over coffee, or maybe with your local cleric, but it’s not dinner table conversation, the way physical health is.

While people increasingly “come out” about other facets of themselves, such as sexuality and gender identity (often making front page headlines of magazines), people opening up about mental illness is not as common nor does it seem to garner the same sort of attention.

I myself, in making the argument for the normalization of queer sexualities and gender identities, have often stressed the fact that being gay is not a mental illness and that a transgender identity is not pathological. My point was not to malign the mentally ill, but rather to make the distinction between what are brain disorders responsive to – and often times in need of – treatment, versus a bonafide identity which doesn’t warrant treatment (especially not in the way of legal proscriptions).

And even though I am a mental health advocate and someone who has lived experience with mental illness, even I shy away sometimes from speaking as comfortably as I ought to be able to about issues of mental health and treatment. I may disclose the fact that I’ve had years of therapy from which I’ve benefited, but ordinarily it’s only to someone who I either consider myself particularly close with or when the topic is brought up in discussion by someone else, and even then I hesitate. And the problem is, if I’m waiting for someone else to mention it before I broach the subject, I may be waiting a long time.

Just this week, NPR aired an interesting story about a medical student who is making waves by being open about her struggle with mental illness. I couldn’t believe this when I heard it. I would have thought that of all places, medical school would be one of the most understanding and accepting communities when it comes to issues of mental health – since, you know, it’s related to health. Apparently this is far from the case.

The story discussed how Giselle (the medical student) took a big risk in disclosing her history of depression, anxiety and attempted suicide on her med school application. She notes how people told her to “not mention that [she has] any kind of weakness” – the weakness, in their eyes, being the mental illness itself, not the shame and stigma associated with it. Then, after she had gotten into medical school, she would have episodes, one time suffering a panic attack during an exam. This led to a committee hearing where she was asked “if she could handle her issues” and “if she was cut out for the stressful life of a doctor”.

This is an example of mental health being treated differently than physical health. If she had been catching colds, having auto-immune issues or getting migraines from the stress, would they have handled it in the same way, chalking it up to grit, rather than bodily dysfunction? It’s possible, but I highly doubt it.

The problem is, because of stigma and this discomfort we have around these topics, mental health is not brought up as often as it could be. And because it’s not brought up as often as it could and should be, misunderstanding and myth can still prevail. People still confuse the symptoms of a mental illness with defects in character or a lack of morals. And it is precisely this misunderstanding and close association with character and value which fosters shame and discourages some people from seeking what can be necessary and life saving treatment.

So for the sake of our health, let’s continue to talk about mental health, shall we? And who knows, a future doctor may just thank us for it.

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