Time to Change the Conversation

It is time to drop the stigma around mental health and save a life, one step is simply changing the words we use.

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Stop being scared to save a life. A simple change in conversation may be building the wall between people struggling and the help they need. Every forty seconds someone takes their own life. That means by the time your eyes have scanned this column, about five people will have taken their own life. This tragedy, the invisible battles people are fighting, and the scars of survivors can no longer be ignored, when sometimes a simple change in conversation or  reaching out, may save a life. Mental health is part of human nature, just like physical health, but it has been ignored and hidden in our society, which has formed a negative stigma that forces those struggling to stay struggling. 

When I was a freshman in college, two friends from my hometown, one who I had known since I was two years old, who was the older sister I always wanted, and the other whose smile brightened every life she touched, took their own lives. It was a devastating time in my life and for those close to them, but it changed me and my future. Since then Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group, gave me a new insight into mental illness and inspired me to do that for others. After each suicide the stigma worsens. People whisper about selfish motives, ignore the suicide at school, or simply disregard it. These people were fighting battles that they saw no way out of. Changing the words used, and the way people are treated if they are open about their mental health can literally be life changing. Mental health is something we all have, so why isn’t it something we all talk about?

Part of the reason mental health, and especially suicide is so often brushed under the rug, is because of the way media has portrayed it for so many years. Movies, TV shows, and even the news repeatedly portrays people with mental illnesses as monsters that the audience should be afraid of. In many movies mental illnesses always fall on the minds of the villain and not the average character, even though one in five people will live with a mental illness in their lifetime. TV shows, like Thirteen Reasons Why, portray suicide as a selfish action, blaming others, and in one scene it shows the one most warned against thing in the suicide prevention world: the actual suicide. The news will also use mental illness as a scapegoat for mass shooters, which will foster fear of mental illnesses in the audience. Thus, the media system coupled with the language that each of these have created while talking about mental illness, i.e. “crazy” and “insane” have created a culture that avoids talking about mental health. 

The problem with this is that those 1 in 5 people who are living with a mental illness will not want to ask for help. Which, unfortunately, may be part of why my two friends thought taking their own life was the only decision left. There were signs, there are always signs: tweets, texts, absences, they all scream for help with hindsight bias, but at the moment no one took it seriously enough. It’s important that society is aware of the signs, and not be afraid to check in on one another every now and then because asking for help or asking someone if they need help is a strength, and never a weakness. 

Along with reaching out, changing the words we use could move mountains in the world of mental health. If someone is sad one day, don’t call them depressed. If it’s cloudy in the morning and sunny later, don’t call it bipolar. If someone likes to be organized, don’t tell them they have OCD. If someone drinks too much at a party don’t, call them an alcoholic. Never jokingingly say “killing myself.” Don’t use crazy, insane, disturbed. If someone is living with a mental illness, don’t say they’re depressed, say they have depression. A mental illness is not an entire identity, it is only part of the puzzle and millions of people live a normal life with a mental illness everyday. It’s also important to say died by suicide or lost by suicide, because people who take their own lives aren’t committing a murder or a committing a crime, saying “commit suicide” suggests blame. When someone believes that ending their life is truly the only option, they are not thinking clearly and this can be a symptom of some mental illnesses, but we cannot blame them, as we would never blame someone for dying of cancer. 

Mental illnesses are complicated, suicide is hard to talk about, you can’t see it and there is no perfect solution, but that doesn’t mean society can ignore it. Simple things like opening up about therapy, reaching out, and thinking before you speak may give people who need it the courage to find help. It is important we do this before it is too late and we lose another life to suicide and hopefully next time you read this, 5 people won’t have died by suicide.

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