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Let’s talk about mental health: Breaking down stigma

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Community member Markus Heinrich believes mental health stigma can manifest in social media. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHANNON STEELE

By Shannon Steele EBS COLUMNIST

Stigmatization of mental health challenges is nothing new. Throughout time, individuals and groups of people who differed from the social norm suffered from stereotypes, prejudices, social exclusion and much worse. 

For hundreds of years, people with depression, autism, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses were treated much like slaves or criminals: imprisoned, tortured or killed. During the Middle Ages, mental illness was regarded as a punishment from God, and people were burned at the stake or thrown into penitentiaries and “madhouses.” During the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, people with mental health challenges were freed and institutions, called “insane asylums,” were established to support the treatment of mental illness.

Though the consequences of facing mental health challenges may seem less extreme now, stigma still exists and takes many shapes and forms in society today. Institutionally, socially, culturally, and internally, people view mental health challenges as being unusual or tainted, even though mental health challenges are simply a part of the human experience.

In these modern times, stigma can manifest on social media.

“Social media portrays life to be better than it actually is,” said community member Markus Heinrich. “I understand that their life isn’t perfect but even if I know that, I still feel like I am still missing out on aspects of my life that could be more like theirs. It’s like I am brainwashed by it.” 

When asked how Heinrich would describe how life really is as opposed to what is seen on social media, he stated: “Life is real … it’s not all glamorous. Instagram just shows people’s vacations, similar to how people come to Big Sky for vacation to ski, hike, raft, party. They show their highlights on social media, and we live on the backside of that photo. We see the reality of what it is actually like to experience what it is actually like living here.” 

Many of the challenges Heinrich discussed were the compounded mental and behavioral impacts of the pandemic, high cost of living and housing insecurity, having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and the expectation that productivity should be status quo, though much of the community is not functioning at the same level they were two years ago. 

Millions of people are affected by diagnosable mental illness each year, and millions more experience a spectrum of mental health challenges. The National Alliance on Mental Illness highlighted the prevalence of mental health challenges in the U.S. in 2020. We expect numbers to be much over the last two years:

  • 21 percent of adults—approximately 52.9 million people—experienced mental illness.
  • One in three young adults (18-25) experienced a mental illness
  • One in six adolescents (12-17) experience a major depressive episode and 3 million had serious thoughts of suicide

Shodair Children’s Hospital reported 25 Montana youth (12-17) took their own life in 2020. This is double what it has been in the past several years.

Stigma is one of the main barriers to seeking support and why people suffering from mental health challenges don’t reach out for help.

Much like our Instagram posts, we develop a façade in our day-to-day lives, acting like everything is okay, when it is indeed not.  

Heinrich said he doesn’t think people reach out for help because of the wellness others portray. There’s a belief that “I just need to suck it up and get through it.”

It is important to ask ourselves about the beliefs we hold that keep us from reaching out for help. At a Wellness Navigator Network meeting on Tuesday, March 15th, the Navigators shared the messages and beliefs they hear in the community: 

Everyone can play a role in breaking down stigma in Big Sky by normalizing talking about mental health. When someone asks you how your day is, tell them how you’re actually feeling. Check in with others. When they say, “I’m good.” Respond with, “No, how are you actually feeling?”

Know that you are not alone and there’s a community of support within reach. Contact shannon.steele@yellowstoneclub.com to get in touch with a Wellness Navigator and to learn more about local mental and behavioral health resources.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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