Are mental health stereotypes accurate?

Storm Shiraz - Dec. 22, 2022 - 5 min read - #Culture

Depression, anxiety, bipolar. These are all terms we’ve heard before. But have we heard them too much, or not enough? I’m sure we’re all very familiar with the phrase, “I’m so depressed”. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. But what does it mean to be depressed? Of course, talking about this subject, I will need to give a brief content warning. This article mentions self-harm and mental illness traits such as extreme violence and other sensitive topics.

As someone who does suffer from mental illness, it wasn’t a surprise that I became interested in this topic. Not only do I know mental illness from an inside point of view, I have also seen it from an outside perspective; people I know and call some of my closest friends suffer with similar issues and I’m going to share to stories of two of them.

Let's call the first person 'Person A'. Person A grew up with her parents quite on and off, a younger brother who is pretty average, and not many friends. She found making and keeping friends quite a challenge throughout her childhood. At 10 years old, she lost one of her best friends. The only person to ever understand her. At the age of 13, she began shutting down, her grades declined, her mask fell, she was missing school, never leaving the house, and began acting aggressively towards people in her family. She locked herself away and when she came back, she wasn’t the same person as before.

Let's call the second person 'Person B'. He’s decently put together. He does well at school, is a member of several sports clubs, and has lots of friends. His home life is pretty average, with mum and dad together, his older sister is an inspiration of his and he loves going out.

If I were to ask you, which out of the two suffers from mental illness, I’m sure the majority would say Person A. Why wouldn’t you? Look at all of the characteristics she possesses.

Now, what if I was to tell you it was both of them?

28% of teenagers that suffer with mental illness portray stereotypical traits. Aggression, isolation, lack of or excess negative emotion, etc. But that also means that 72% suffer in complete silence. Look around, it could be someone sitting next to you, it could be someone in your family, or it could be you. We are so focused as a society, on people with outwardly clear symptoms that we don’t notice the others until it’s too late. There’s another statistic that I found that genuinely does scare me. A study was done in London that found that 1 in 4 girls aged 16-18 have self-harmed. 1 in 4. Let me put that number into perspective. A class of 30, evenly split. According to this number, at least 3 girls in that class have hurt themselves. Another one I found. 79.6% of teenage boys have been reported to suffer with suicidal thoughts or intent. These statistics as a whole are terrifying. To think in the world we live in now, this problem would be talked about and tackled more effectively and efficiently. But no. All we do is focus on these stereotypical traits which, if you think back to my previous figure, aren't possessed by many of those who are suffering.

Stereotyping isn’t an experience anyone wants to have and the fact that it happens with mental health is a large and relevant topic. To stereotype is to prejudge someone as belonging to a certain type. A common and very real fear of many people seeking assistance is to be prejudged or finding themselves stigmatized or stereotyped. To be concerned about being put into a box, assigned a label, being disregarded, misunderstood, ashamed, embarrassed or even criticized can be a tremendous hurdle that individuals coming to terms or seeking help with their mental health may experience. Stereotyping in mental health is a real problem that needs to change. Especially when these stereotypes are damaging.

Think back to the stories of Person A and Person B. The devastating truth is that Person B's poor mental state wouldn’t be picked up for a very long time. Person A, however, portrays these stereotypical traits I’ve been discussing, and whilst yes, she will get the help she needs, she will be left in this box, this ideology may forever follow her; that she is, lazy, broken, unable to function and it will damage her. People with poor mental health aren’t completely unable to care for themselves or are a project that need fixing. They are someone with their own needs and wants just like you. They just happen to have a mental state that’s different.

Don’t assume that someone who suffers with their mental state is going to act a certain way. There’re no criteria they need to meet. There are no rules they must follow. Mental illness can come in any form and all you can do is help. Be there for your friends or peers and don’t try to tell them that they are or aren’t depressed based on mannerisms or habits.

Below are two responses to questions that you have that may arise from the content of this article.

  • Question: You mentioned that mental illness terms might be heard too much. Can you elaborate?

Mental illness terms might be being used too much in the way that they are carelessly thrown around as a joke, or as loose or umbrella terms. There was a time in which mental health wasn’t talked about at all and now, I do believe, in a lot of ways it’s talked about too much and to an extent has become sensationalised.

  • Question: What does it mean to be depressed?

To be depressed isn’t to be sad or lazy. It’s to be completely unaware of your emotions and how to cope with the extreme mood swings or lack of emotion you experience. It can either be caused by something or it’s just a chemical imbalance in your brain. To be depressed isn’t cute or a little bit annoying. It’s a monster that eats you up inside and you have to pretend it isn’t or it gets worse. That’s speaking from my experience. Not everyone has it the same way.