Sugar-coating mental health fails students

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On Oct. 10, the world recognized the 25th World Mental Health Day. Although treatments are continuously being tested and the dialogue involved in discussing mental health topics has expanded, it is no secret that there is still much work to be done. Here in the U.S., obtaining access to mental health care remains a struggle for many. Additionally, the stigma against mental health persists. Mental health is prominently an issue in the context of debates on gun rights.

The U.S. is not alone in having this problem. In the United Kingdom, a study found that approximately a third of people with mental illnesses were forced to resign from their jobs, and 40 percent of the same population claim that they were denied a job due to prior psychiatric treatment. Although this finding was released in the U.K. back in 2010, we can see that in 2014, about 40 percent of employers in the U.K. perceived hiring a person with a mental illness as a "significant risk" regardless of the potential employee's actual abilities or qualifications.

South Korea also sees this trend. This country, unfortunately, has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Many potential factors may come into play: rigorous academic standards, beauty standards that almost normalize cosmetic surgery, and overall silence on the topic of mental health as a whole. Several K-Pop stars helped break the silence by opening up about their personal struggles through songs, but the subject is still largely undiscussed.

Colleges are at least becoming more vocal about mental health and the importance of mental well-being. Here on campus in spring 2017, students were encouraged to open up about "stress culture" by answering prompts such as "CMU Stress Culture Doesn’t Exist. Thoughts?". Additionally, Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) saw a significant increase in the staff, facilities, and appointment hours. Multiple university-wide events, such as "Paws to Relax" held every Wednesday in the Mindfulness Room and Phi Delta Theta's "Fresh Check Day", which hosted activities to spread awareness for mental wellness, attempt to keep students' wellness in mind. These initiatives are fantastic and throughly appreciated. As much as we should continue the dialogue on mental health, it is also important to rethink our approach on mental health and its awareness.

Being the first to start the conversation is not an easy task, especially when the topic is something so sensitive. Thus, I understand and can appreciate having awareness in a more lighthearted, even sugar-coated way. When we think of and speak about self-care, we often think of various picture-perfect indulgences such as baths and extravagant meals or snacks worthy of being shared online. There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but we must recognize that the conversation for mental health cannot stop at petting zoos or arts and crafts. Reducing mental health to such is like reducing breast cancer solely to pink merchandise instead of the many lives impacted by the brutal disease.

Education is critical in having an aware population. Oftentimes, many well-meaning people fail to recognize the symptoms or fail to help loved ones because of lack of information. Some may avoid asking if someone is suicidal in fear of increasing the likelihood of suicide or considering it as impossible, although the statistics suggest this is not the case. By allowing accessible information for helping someone who is suicidal or connection with resources, perhaps we can better guide these good intentions.

When we are considering the impact of our words, we are looking beyond mere semantics. Casually using "OCD" to describe meticulousness can create the illusion that obsessive-compulsive disorder is about tidiness, not a serious illness that affects about 1 percent of the U.S. adult population and traps people into a vicious cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals to alleviate them. Using "depressed" and "sad" interchangeably alludes a clinical and diagnosable mood disorder is equivalent to a fleeting emotion. I am not suggesting that we should remove these terms from our vernacular; I simply propose that we educate ourselves on the true meaning of the terms and acknowledge that this may not align with the way we use them.

It is easiest to not mention mental health. I can personally testify that wanting to appear to be "perfect" inhibited me from opening up to others that I struggled with my mental health, and the stigma surrounding the topic prevented me from seeking help for years. However, just because something is easier does not mean that it is better. By keeping the silence, we are potentially making approximately 18.5 percent of the U.S. population feel as though they are alone in their struggle. It is easier to portray mental health as indulging oneself, but this fails to capture the reality of mental illnesses. Now, we must move forward and have open and honest discussions.