| The risk of over-simplifying mental health
In class, someone straightens their pencil and paper and notes. “I’m so OCD,” they say. Their fellow classmate holds their tongue, knowing their diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder leads to violent, intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that make them tap their pencil six times before using it and always click the light switch twice before they can leave the room.
As members of Generation Z have grown older, transitioning into young adulthood, many have drawn attention to the stigmatization of mental illnesses and the importance of addressing and caring for one’s mental health.
It is this generation that has projected the discussion of mental health discussion onto a much larger public stage of social media and representation in news than in previous decades. More open conversations and resources have become available in schools and open conversations between students and families have become more common.
The lessening stigma of discussing mental illnesses, misrepresentation in media and overall lack of proper education has led to a dangerous trend in self-diagnosing.
“When you self-diagnose, you are essentially assuming that you know the subtleties that diagnosis constitutes,” Dr. Srini Pillay wrote in Psychology Today.
“The media does not represent the complexity of mental illness in general. There’s this sense that it’s just a one-name-fits-everybody, or one-title-fits-everybody,” Nikki Marks, a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder told U.S News
Our generation is thus prone to self-diagnose mental illnesses. The terms depression or OCD is often floated around casually by high school students.
The harm in these phrases stems from a misunderstanding of the illness and the symptoms and behaviors that accompany it. The sadness that stems from a relationship breakup or bad weather greatly differs from the intense fatigue and potential suicidal thoughts that are symptoms of depression, yet they are convoluted using this definition of the word depressed. Depression implies that the individual is “feelings of severe despondency and dejection”.
A tendency for being organized and neat is exactly that, neatness. Having OCD can mean intrusive thoughts about violence that cause someone to repeat actions in patterns or numbers.
With rising national and global issues, civil rights movements and growing up in the age of social media and technology, it’s no surprise that Gen Z faces unusually high reports of stress and depression so it may not always be an exaggeration when someone makes a claim of certain mental illnesses.
Access to proper mental health care and treatment remains difficult for a large portion of Americans. Knowing this, people may have a mental illness, suffer the symptoms and talk about it but are not officially diagnosed, yet it is very real.
“For people with serious mental illness, you actually have better access to care if you have Medi-Cal than commercial insurance.” Dr. Tom Insel, a psychiatrist who serves as chief adviser to California Governor Gavin Newsom, said at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Almost a quarter (22.3%) of all adults with a mental illness reported that they were not able to receive the treatment they needed, according to data reported by Mental Health America.
An important distinction is that between mental health and mental illnesses, which can go hand-in-hand but are not the same. Mental health refers to one’s mental/emotional well-being and should be taken as seriously as physical health as the two make up our overall health. Being stressed, insecure, or overwhelmed can lead to bad mental health, and a person’s mental health fluctuates constantly.
However mental illnesses, according to the American Psychiatric Association, “refer collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior” and can also be genetically passed on.
With this growing normalization of mental health issues and illnesses also come generalizations.
High school students, at times, associate mood changes to having a sentitude of what it is to be bipolar.
This can lead to the convolution of a debilitating disorder with a humorous condition.
Generalizing behaviors of mental illnesses can lead to a sense of invalidation for those living with them.
While symptoms vary from person to person, those who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder can go through manic episodes in which they can become delusional, and then fall into depressive episodes which are entirely debilitating.
Commonly hearing people describing normal human tendencies or behaviors as symptoms of an illness undervalues the mental and physical struggles that typically accompany such diagnoses. The generalization of very complex illnesses that can manifest and a large variety of behaviors and feelings, into common actions of being sad or nervous also shows a still great misunderstanding of what mental illnesses are and how they function.
Generation Z must be ready to change this aspect of how we consider mental health. To do so, schools should implement mental health programs that educate students on these topics into their wellness curriculums. Influencers, activists and the general public should not only advocate for mental health awareness and education through social media platforms. Individuals should work to educate their peers and friends on why generalization and self-diagnoses can be harmful, and teach the truth about mental health issues.
We can work together to both reduce the stigma around mental health and mental illnesses and provide an accurate education on the complexities of mental illness.