When Shame Becomes Pain: How Stigma Affects Us All

Daniel Kessler, Behavioral and Community Health ’17, University Health Center Wellness Intern

I want you to imagine something. Picture your best friend was just diagnosed with an illness. What would you say to them? “I’m so sorry?” “Is there something I can do to help?”

You probably wouldn’t say “oh just get over it. Just try harder.” That’s what people dealing with a mental health condition hear sometimes, though.

Why are mental health issues treated differently from physical health issues? We all have bodies and we all have minds. Each of them has the ability to work well or work poorly. Why are mental health issues shamed in a way that physical health issues aren’t? Why does this stigma exist?

Stigma is real, it is pervasive, and it affects us all. Stigma is hiding the fact that you go to a therapist. It’s living with the assumption that people with mental health issues may be violent or unpredictable, and having to explain over and over again that that’s simply not true. Stigma is exhausting, stigma is continuous, and stigma is pain distilled.

Why should you care? Like it or not, mental health concerns are all around us. 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. It could be you, or it could be someone you know. Chances are you’re affected by mental health issues or concerns.

How can we help those 25% who are dealing with a mental health concern? Treatment. Therapy. Medication. Self-management. It works. Unfortunately some people are unable to receive the treatment and support they need. They could be embarrassed. They could be ashamed.

Now, what’s the driving force behind this embarrassment and shame? Stigma. When the stark truth is that people are not getting the help they need because stigma marks them with feelings of mortification and guilt, something needs to change.

Stigma, however, isn’t the only reason people don’t receive help. Some of the more common reasons for not seeking treatment include long wait-lists for services, not enough funds, and not thinking the issue is serious enough. We need to recognize all the different reasons treatment is not taking place and work to eliminate these barriers as much as we can.

How can we help? What can we do? We can fight. We can make our voices heard. Get the message out. Tell your story. Show people what mental health problems really look like. Become an activist. Transform the conversation around mental health. Let people know seeking help isn’t weak, it is strong. Be the person who changes things.

I’ll help you get started. Hi. My name is Daniel Kessler. Throughout my life I’ve experienced instances of anxiety, depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I’ve also had a stint in in-patient treatment in a psychiatric facility. I’ve dealt with mental health issues, and I’ve also partaken in therapy and medication use. I’m at a good place right now. I’ve also dedicated my time to fighting stigma.

But it’s a tough journey. That’s why we need your help. We need you to join the battle. Be the voice in the crowd that stands up to stigma and doesn’t sit down. Keep educating people, keep telling your story, and keep fighting. I would love to wake up one day and experience a world stigma free. Until that day comes, I’m still here. I’m still talking. Stigma wins if you stay silent. Speak up. Lend your voice to the conversation and break free.

In a final note, if this piece resonates with you or you want to talk with someone, don’t hesitate to reach out and seek help. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. And there are lots of resources on campus to help – included the Mental Health Service at the University Health Center and free therapy sessions at the Counseling Center. You can also call the HELP Center at 301-314-HELP – a hotline where you can talk to a trained peer counselor about whatever may be troubling you.