What we don’t see, we don’t know.

How do you know if someone has a cold? Symptoms of the common cold are easy to detect and you could tell if someone is suffering. These symptoms are visible and prominent. On the other hand, could you tell if someone is suffering from a mental illness? Symptoms of mental illness tend to be invisible to the naked eye, and therein lies the problem with attitudes toward mental illness and the stigma attached to it. How can one distinguish if someone is not functioning optimally because he is lazy or he has a mental illness? How would we even know if we have a mental illness?

A 2015 mental health literacy study by the Institute of Mental Health found that some mental illnesses (particularly alcohol addiction and clinical depression) were likely to be attributed to weakness rather than sickness. While it is regrettable that observers have this attitude toward a sufferer, it is worse when the sufferer has the same attitude toward himself. If we cannot acknowledge the presence of an illness, we naturally cannot hope to seek help for it. In days past, lacking the technology to study our brains, this meant that mental illnesses could not be scientifically identified. It was too easy to simply say someone was “lazy”, or apply negative labels. Ironically, the act of labeling a person with a mental disorder is in itself, lazy. Unfortunately, the negativity toward mental illness has been passed down through generations, and it still lingers today.

If this stigma has survived due to a lack of knowledge, we can fight this stigma with education and awareness. Although emerging in our society, knowledge and understanding of mental illness are still lacking, and this is holding us back as a society. We now know that mental illness is not a character trait or flaw, so having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. With an improved array of studies and technology to observe our brains and behaviour, we have the means to help those in need. Yet, the majority of people with mental illness still refrain from seeking help. We need to break the stigma, and in so doing ensure the wellbeing of our future selves and the generations after.

Written by Dr. Joel Yang