Campus Calm had the opportunity to speak with Ross Szabo, our Mental Health Survival expert, about ways to reduce the stigma surrounding student mental health. Szabo is the Director of Youth Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC).
Campus Calm: What is mental health stigma and how does it prevent young people from seeking the help that they need?
Ross Szabo: Stigma surrounding mental health stems from the stigma surrounding mental disorders. People think that if they talk about emotions it’s a sign of weakness. They’re embarrassed and ashamed and don’t really know how to talk about how they feel on a lot of levels. Beyond that, a lot of people are afraid of being labeled loony, or crazy, or psycho, or wacko. If they have an emotional problem, they’re afraid that people are going to judge them, talk about them differently and make them more of an outcast.
There’s also a stigma around therapy. Some people feel as if they don’t have the time to work out their problems or they don’t want to burden someone or make their lives worse. Sometimes they don’t even have the words to describe how they feel. Ultimately, it’s a fear of weakness or that it won’t be something treatable that they can deal with.
Campus Calm: Do you believe that it’s our generation’s responsibility and maybe even our calling to stop mental health shame?
Ross Szabo: I think it’s about time that we start looking at mental health issues in a different way. We’ve highlighted these issues for a long time without nailing them. We told people to stop drinking, then we told them to stop doing drugs. There were movements to tell people to stop having sex. At the core of all those issues are mental health issues. If you’re having unsafe sex, it’s probably not because you like yourself. If you’re drinking a lot or doing a lot of drugs, it’s probably not because you care about yourself.
It’s time that we focus on why people are doing destructive things. Young people are in a time period where this is possible. Earlier, we didn’t know enough about the brain or about these issues to do it. So I do think it’s time to do it.
Campus Calm: What are some things that we can do on an individual level to help stop the shame?
Ross Szabo: Individually, if you’re going through a rough time, know that talking about these issues and seeking help is a sign of strength- it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not something you should keep hidden or silent just because of fear. Individually, we need to start being more upfront and having discussions around these things. The more confidence we have, the more we’re going to be able to stand up to people who still view these issues as stigma. Say, “No, you’re wrong. This isn’t a stigma. The brain is a part of the body and I’m going to try to get my brain healthy.”
We can also help our friends and family members by reassuring them and helping them have the confidence to seek help when they’re going through a rough time.
Campus Calm: Who needs to worry about mental health?
Ross Szabo: There’s a whole spectrum involved in mental health and we all should be concerned with the spectrum. On the low end of the spectrum, people may deal with stress, pressure, or lack of sleep. All those things are going to affect someone’s ability to do a lot of things.
Further down the spectrum, people may be dealing with death or divorce, physical or sexual abuse or very clearly defined problems. In those situations, people are going to have to find what works best for them and deal with it. Further down, people my be dealing with mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and anxiety disorders. In those situations, again, they’re going to have to find what works best for them.
Mental health is something that affects everyone. It’s something that everyone needs to be aware of and everyone should definitely work on. No one is except from mental health. We need to do a better job of helping people understand what mental health is.
Campus Calm: Why is it so dangerous to think that we can and should control our problems all by ourselves instead of seeking help?
Ross Szabo: Anytime someone tries to deal with something solely o