Does talking about mental health help end the stigma surrounding it?

Image: Pixabay

[April Wilson | TV Director] 

More and more people, especially celebrities, are opening up about their experiences surrounding their mental health, but is this helping to end the stigma that still exists today around issues surrounding mental health?

Being a student I often worry about the mental health of my friends, as more of them than not are trying to juggle a job, exams and trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. Let’s face it, university life is hard and more often than not it can affect student’s mental health. In 2014-15, the number of students seeking counselling at Russell Group Institutions, compared to the results obtained three years earlier rose from 34,000 to 43,000 students, according to figures obtained by The Guardian. The article points out that this rise coincides with the increase in student fees from 3,000 to 9,000 a year, which for many students meant they had to cope with a significantly larger financial burden. I know that I for one do not like to think about the student debt that is now hovering over my head.

I also know that being a student has affected my personal relationships. For one thing, I know that my family misses me, as due to university commitments and extracurricular activities (that help increase my employability), I can rarely see them during term time. This year, in particular, I feel I have neglected a lot of my friends because I have convinced myself that I simply do not have time to have fun. It’s gotten to the point now that when I do go out that I find myself grumbling, uncomfortable and wondering when I can go home. I feel like the moody adult, but I don’t want to be that way. 

My other personal relationships are also sometimes put under strain from trying to juggle all the obstacles of university life. I have found myself angry with my boyfriend, often through no fault of his own, because I need someone to take out the frustration. He too has acted similarly towards me. Luckily, we were able to understand this and work past it together, but it still upsets me that it happened in the first place. I’m not an angry person (despite the ginger hair that I often frequent) and don’t want to be. However, I am not going to lie, I often feel that student life has left me feeling that way.

But the reason I am bringing up my personal experiences to you all is because this week (16th– 22nd May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is relationships. How often do we discuss how mental health can play in our relationships or our lives in general?

Often, at university we’ll talk about how exams are causing us to break out, binge eat, but not how they might be seriously affecting our relationships or our mental health. I think that this may be because, despite the increase in attempts to de-stigmatise mental health, the stigma is still there. People often keep their mental health issues to themselves to escape this label and from being judged solely on their mental health.

However, recently there has been a rise of celebrities talking about the issues they have had to face surrounding their mental health, which begs the question: is this dialogue from celebrities a way to help end the stigma around mental health?

One such celebrity is Kristen Bell, famous for being the star of Veronica Mars and more recently, Princess Anna in Frozen. Bell opened up about her experiences tackling her mental health issues, specifically that of anxiety and depression in an interview for “Off Camera with Sam Jones”. As depression and anxiety are affect one in every five adults in the UK, Bell opening up about her experiences is incredibly important.

In the interview, Bell says that although she projects the image of being happy, confident and bubbly, she too, like a lot of us struggles with the idea that people don’t like her: “I shatter a bit when I think people don’t like me.”

Kristen Bell Image 1

I can relate to Bell, but I know that not everyone is going to like me, that’s just human nature, sometimes we just decide that we don’t like someone for no particular reason. I’m guilty of doing it just like everyone else. However, it still hurts me a little if someone does it to me.

I’ve met a lot of people at university, and there have been some people who have not liked me. Even if I do not particularly like someone back, I find myself obsessing, asking myself, why do they not like me? and what did I do wrong?  So, for Bell, someone who is adored by millions of fans, to say that she feels the same is reassuring. It’s not just me who feels this way; I think this is what opening up a dialogue about such issues can do. It’s cheesy, but sometimes it’s nice to know you are not the only one.

Bell’s statements of the subject mirror my own as she talks about how “it really hurts [her] feelings when [she is] not liked.” But significantly, Bell has also talked about her attempts to make people like her; she changed her interests based on what friends liked.

I have to admit that in my teen years, I was guilty of this, though sometimes only subconsciously. Although I did stand up against some trends I did not agree with, for example, I presented a list of reasons why I hated Twilight to my A-level English class – which consisted of a lot of Twilight devotees, I was still guilty of following my friends in certain ways. Further down the line at university, people hold a wide range of different interests, and sometimes I still find myself wishing I could somehow be a part of everyone’s different interests.

Princess Anna, Kristen Bell’s character in Frozen has to manage not only her relationship with her emotionally distant sister but also deal with the death of her parents.
Princess Anna, Kristen Bell’s character in Frozen has to manage not only her relationship with her emotionally distant sister but also deal with the death of her parents.

But this is something that I hesitate even now to talk about in a public forum, or even at times with close friends and family. Which is why I find Bell’s attitude of revealing personal things about her battle with mental health issues so refreshing. Later in the interview, she goes on to reveal that her mother sat her down when she was eighteen and told her that there was a serotonin imbalance in her family and that it could often be passed down from female to female. Bell’s mother was honest about her family’s history and told her what to do if she ever started to feel symptoms: 

“If you start to feel you are twisting things around you, and you start to feel there is no sunlight around you and you are paralysed with fear, this is what it is and here is how you can help yourself.”

I think it is important to think of mental health signs as specifically that, symptoms. Issues with your mental health are an illness just like any other illness. Bell is quick to highlight this by stressing that a lot of people are quick to shame people for taking a prescription to help combat their mental health issues. She criticises this by arguing: “but in the medical community, you would never deny a diabetic his insulin.” She reveals that she takes medication to help with her anxiety and depression.

Bell’s attitude of refusing to let people shame her is something that the world needs. Many people are still quick to dismiss the problems faced by people with mental health issues, but Bell’s interview opens up an important dialogue about the stigma faced by people with mental health issues.

Many other celebrities have talked about their issues with mental health, including Stephen Fry, who has opened up about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. However, some people have questioned whether celebrities opening up with their battles with mental health issues are helping to end the stigma around mental health issues.

Stephen Fry Image
Flickr, Duncan Hull, CC BY 4.0

After all, the celebrities who have talked about their problems are often already successful. It is not hard to understand why people would think that talking about such issues might not affect their success because their careers are already established, but for others, talking about such issues could put off future employers.

Despite this, I urge everyone to continue talking about the mental health issues that they may be facing; the more it is a topic in ordinary conversation, the fewer people will gasp and whisper that so and so has bi-polar disorder and just accept it as fact.

I think that celebrities’ talking about their experiences with mental health issues is still relevant to tackling the stigma. There is no denying that if Bell, can talk about her mental health issues, then maybe I can talk about the issues I’ve been having too.

After all, more often than not as students, you are going to face extreme levels of stress and this can cause strain in your relationships. So just remember that when it all gets too overwhelming, take some time out, whether you feel that you have the time to or not and talk about how you are feeling. I know it’s scary. I don’t like talking about how I am feeling either, but if I can talk about it and trust me I am one of the most closed off people you can meet, you can talk about it too.

So this Mental Health Awareness Week, please take some time to think about your relationships and how they can be affected by your mental health, and remember that there is absolutely no shame in talking about it.

Also, please remember that there are services at the University of Hertfordshire where you can talk about any issues if you may be having. Just drop into the Student Wellbeing Counselling Office in Hutton Hub at College Lane Campus.

You can also email Student Wellbeing at counselling.centre@herts.ac.uk

Or telephone them at +44 (0)1707 28445

Remember, there is nothing at all shameful in talking about your mental health.

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Does talking about mental health help end the stigma surrounding it?