Walking by my school’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter’s social events always gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, promoting a stigma free environment at UVa is a worthy albeit somewhat idealistic goal. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of some of NAMI’s fundraising tactics or the legislation for which its members lobby. I’m also not convinced that tie-dyeing t-shirts is going to advance efforts to “end the stigma.”
Here’s the thing. People in the throes of a mental health condition aren’t going to be attending these events, so it seems like NAMI (and organizations like it) simply wants to put on an affectation of caring and attract new members who would have probably joined regardless. But maybe I’m cynical.
Then again, I don’t find it completely inappropriate that it also happens to be National Suicide Prevention Week. I understand the need to raise awareness for this issue; especially since suicide rates are at a thirty-year-high (!). I understand that people need an outlet to tell their truly breathtaking and heartbreaking stories about they ways suicide or suicide attempts have dramatically altered their lives.
But suicide – the culmination of a years-long struggle with severe mental illness – is indeed preventable, so why aren’t we raising awareness for the actual ways we could prevent it? Like, you know, not just retroactively caring about people who have already committed suicide and futilely wondering, “what we could have done to stop it.” Meanwhile, people who are suffering from mental illness but still alive are met with dismissive responses (“you’re just doing this for attention,” something about cowardice, something about selfishness, etc.) when they tell others about their struggles. To prevent suicide, we have to actually care about people who haven’t done it but are at risk to do it. Period. End of story.
We also have to support non-dismissive legislation and unbiased, non-pharmaceutical-company-funded research. As long as we continue to let drug companies advertise medication that is only effective half the time by putting forth an incomplete, at best, and completely off base, at worst, hypothesis about how anxiety disorders come about (the serotonin hypothesis), we aren’t going to prevent suicide. As long as we view severely mentally ill people as scary and violent and let those without a support system become homeless or imprisoned, we aren’t going to prevent suicide. As long as we support legislation that allows doctors and caregivers more leeway to sedate patients in shoddy mental hospitals without their input, only to release them back into the world a week later, we aren’t going to prevent suicide. We can’t prevent suicide by putting a Band-Aid on such an underfunded and misrepresented issue. We can’t just “shut people up” with medication that barely works and expect a little “ending the stigma” to do the trick, yet we keep doing it and wonder why it isn’t working.
It breaks my heart to think about people who don’t have the support system (monetarily and emotionally) that I do. I can get therapy. I can get medication if I want it. If things ever got unbearable, I could afford to take a break, to stay in a hospital, and to, well, not become homeless or imprisoned. But even if we elevated everyone to that level of privilege, it still wouldn’t be enough. It’d still be putting Band-Aids on the wounds left by these diseases on victims that deserve cures.
I’m not trying to discount the significant amount of good NAMI and its fellow organizations (like Active Minds and Mental Health America – MHA, etc.) do. Its members are indeed well-intended and altruistic. Plus, ending the stigma could very well be the thing that would lead to better quality care and research, but this isn’t an issue where one foot can be in each camp. You’re either working on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and mental hospitals or you’re working on behalf of actual patients. This is an issue where the influence of money makes it impossible for an organization to overturn the norm with a Trojan-horse-style infiltration.
As for NSPW, it’s incredibly important to give survivors a platform to share their stories. It humanizes the issue and fosters empathy, which definitely helps end the stigma. But one week isn’t going to do much in the grand scheme of things. People with suicidal ideation don’t go away for the rest of the year. People with less severe but still damaging mental illnesses don’t go away either.
We need to support finding the root causes of mental illnesses and the development of medication that aims to treat those causes instead of the mere symptoms. In the mean time, we need to support legislation that treats mental health patients with the same level of care as every other patient. We need to call out any person or news organization that tries to depict the mentally ill as violent. We need to validate the experiences of mentally ill people who confide in us. We need to care about things that don’t directly affect us instead of waiting until they do. We can prevent suicide. But we should also support efforts that aim to prevent mental illness from reaching that level of severity in the first place.