🗝️ Sanity Classics: Stop 'investing' in mental health

🗝️ Sanity Classics: Stop 'investing' in mental health

Humans aren't stocks.

Tanmoy Goswami
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Here's one of the most intriguingly upbeat mental health headlines from the past couple years: According to a study, stigma around depression in the US fell for the first time in recorded history. And here's the anticlimax to that warm fuzzy story: Stigma around schizophrenia and alcohol dependency increased.

Depression remains a leading cause of ill health, disability, and deaths worldwide. The study did not elaborate on the reasons for the change in attitude towards the illness, but you can bet this is among the biggest ones: People with depression have finally – and vocally – managed to prove themselves worthy. I use the idea of worth consciously, because the hierarchy of mental distress isn't merely a healthcare issue. It is also, and often primarily, an economic one.

Society's newfound agreeableness towards depression is the result of increasing masses of people living with depression coming out, loudly claiming space, and proving that their condition doesn't render them dysfunctional or useless. It has little to do with any intrinsically motivated mass awakening within humanity. It has everything to do with the mainstreaming and glamourisation of 'high-functioning' depression – the 'good' subspecies of depression that doesn't inconvenience others, doesn't disrupt our economic engines, makes for worthy role models, and thus invokes our acceptance and even admiration.

In other words, a growing albeit still small group of people living with depression – often with privileged identities such as mine – has passed society's productivity test. And nothing kills stigma like productivity (or at least the appearance of it).

Fall in stigma owes to personal stories

A 2021 study by text analytics firm Relative Insights showed the growing room for personal stories in mental health-related news. The media was 10.8x more likely to describe the conversation around mental health as “open”, “relatable”, and “friendly” compared to 2010. Much of this improvement presumably owes to a single factor: advocacy by a growing phalanx of people with lived experience who helped prise open a long-stigmatised conversation and create a sense of community, especially on social media. A 2019 survey showed that #MentalHealth Twitter was the biggest subgroup within #HealthTwitter, with 87% of the community saying they use Twitter because “they did not feel alone”. (Self-disclosure of mental health conditions remains a function of privilege, and we are still far from a truly inclusive conversation.)

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