One social convention that has always astounded me is how often people casually talk about killing themselves. I’m not referring to people who actually want to kill themselves, but people who choose to use suicide as a silly hyperbole to contrast with their minor inconvenience. I’m talking about the joke that so many people tell just to fill airspace, that we’ve all heard so many times in so many different variations that you probably don’t even notice it anymore: “OMG, that [inconvenient thing] was so terrible I wanted to kill myself!”
As far as offensive jokes go, this one may seen fairly tepid. There’s no graphic imagery or swear words, and its use is oftentimes so casual that I’ve heard young children use it. Yet even though suicide claimed 46,500 American lives in 2012, according to the World Health Organization, joking about it has become ingrained into our language to the point of cliche. This type of humor symbolizes exactly what victims of mental illness have had to endure for as long as they’ve been around: all of the pain and suffering that comes with a life-threatening disease without the same level of the compassion or resources to make it bearable.
This disrespect for the mentally ill stems from a number of societal trends. On its website, the mental health nonprofit Unite For Sight says many cultures “have viewed mental illness as a form of religious punishment or demonic possession.” To be fair, most diseases were at one time considered to be caused by malevolent spirits. But after the Industrial Revolution, the amount of medical knowledge available expanded rapidly. Thanks to advances such as antibiotics and surgery, physical illness became significantly less dangerous and life expectancy skyrocketed. Mental illness, however, did not receive the same treatment.
The mentally ill continued to be seen as “weirdos” or “crazies”, cartoonish outcasts to be mocked and isolated. On its website, the Science Museum of London says the term “mental illness” didn’t even become a medical term until the early 1900s, when it finally replaced stigmatized and hurtful labels like “madness” and “lunacy.” As a result, historically, mental illness has been dramatically underexplored. “Research on serious mental illnesses remains markedly underfunded,” says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “when you consider either its cost to society or the disability it causes.” Homosexuality was listed as a mental disease in the industry-standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. Children exhibiting symptoms of personality disorders were seen as brats that needed to have their attitudes beaten out of them. Simply put, the mentally ill were perceived as nothing more than people who chose not to fit into society because they didn’t want to. It wasn’t until recent years that society has begun to acknowledge the notion that these people can’t function because society disempowers them.
While the social stigma around mental illness has changed somewhat, the institutions responsible for treating the mentally ill are still underfunded and under regulated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “several key findings [in the World Health Organization’s worldwide health study] deserve emphasis: four of the top ten causes of disability in the world are mental illnesses (unipolar major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders).” They went on to forecast that in all age groups worldwide, “depression will produce the second largest disease burden in the year 2020.”
In 2012, the World Health Assembly released its agenda. The agenda addressed several mental health concerns and asked member states, including the U.S., to strengthen their mental health care support system. The agenda lists several reasons for this reform; For example, the fact that over 30 percent of people with mental disorders in high-income countries receive no treatment for their mental health conditions. In low and middle-income countries, this figure skyrockets to between 76 and 85 percent.
We as a society need to give mental illness the treatment that it was denied in the 20th century. We need to realize that mental illness is just as serious as any other kind of illness and that it should be treated as such. The mentally ill are one of many oppressed minorities in the world, but they comprise the only group whose members are robbed of their humanity by their own minds.