There’s still a long way to go before we’re a mental health-positive, stigma-free society. Many people still don’t think about mental illnesses in the same way as other illnesses, such as cancer or diabetes. There are still extreme barriers to getting treatment, like the expense and the lack of providers. People in power still blame mental health for mass shootings far too often and use derogatory mental health language when discussing opponents.
When I first started writing about mental health in 2013, the landscape was also different. There was a glaring lack of coverage about these issues across the media, or worse, news outlets would prominently cover a celebrity’s or citizen’s “erratic behavior” as something that was “bizarre” or “entertaining.” A lot of suicide reporting was insensitive, glamorizing, salacious ― or all three.
But we also have come a long way in 10 years. More people are open to therapy now than ever before; millennials and those in Gen Z report a willingness to talk about mental health significantly more than baby boomers and Gen X folks. Slowly — perhaps too slowly — but surely, the tide is shifting.
A lot that can be attributed to both tragic and affirming events that have occurred since 2010. Below are just a few defining moments from the past decade, all of which influenced the way we talk about and view mental health today:
The death of Robin Williams and other beloved celebrities
In August 2014, we were shocked to learn that actor Robin Williams died by suicide. His death ― among those of many other public figures, including Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade ― was perhaps the most prominent and transformative event of the last decade when it comes to mental health.
The public nature of celebrity deaths by suicide yielded to a more monumental conversation about mental health, according to Gregory Dalack, chair of the Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry and treasurer of the American Psychiatric Association. The tragedies “triggered greater awareness about the stigma around mental health and the importance of seeking help,” he told HuffPost.
“Their deaths also served as a reminder that mental illness affects everyone regardless of age or socioeconomic status,” Dalack added.
The events certainly changed the way we talk about mental health, but sadly there still hasn’t yet been a shift in suicide outcomes. Suicide is still the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, with about 123 people dying every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some of those tragedies can even be attributed to celebrity deaths, thanks to a phenomenon called suicide contagion, when media coverage and details about a prominent person’s death can lead others to take their own life.
“Despite all of the tragic deaths, the suicide numbers have increased each of the last 10 years,” Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, told HuffPost. “One would like to believe if this was really important to the public and the government, far more would have been done about it ― not just because of the large number of celebrities but the people that were connected to them.”
The 2016 election and stress over news
We can’t talk about the last decade without acknowledging the political chaos we’ve all experienced. The 2016 election, the barrage of negative news and the constant cultural turmoil have all had massive repercussions on how we think and feel.
“Many of our patients have recently reported that political news contributed to their daily stress,” Dalack said.
In fact, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that three political events (including the 2016 election and the 2017 inauguration) affected the mood of medical interns just as much as the strenuous first weeks of medical training. “This research reflects an overall trend showing that politics is in fact affecting people in both their personal and professional lives,” Dalack explained.
News reports about sexual assaults, mass shootings, racism, climate change and more have all had a significant effect on people’s mental health as well. But the past 10 years haven’t been all bad on the news and politics front, according to Reidenberg.
“The presidential election of 2016 brought mental health and suicide to the public conversation by Secretary [Hillary] Clinton in a way that was more direct than prior presidential candidates,” he said. “The Affordable Care Act expanded coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorders requiring parity for these illnesses. The voice of those with lived experience began being heard far more loudly and consistently in the last few years. That has and will impact research, advocacy, treatment, support, education and training.”
TV shows that address mental health
The more knowledge we gained about mental health, the more it appeared on our television screens. There were a host of shows in the last decade that tackled mental illness: Scripted programs like “This Is Us” and “You’re the Worst” showed the complex realities of living with a mental illness in poignant ways. Reality TV also made a shift from using therapy as a plot device to featuring sessions as a normal part of people’s daily lives.
But perhaps one of the most talked-about and influential programs was Netflix’s “13 Reason’s Why.” Many viewers commended the show for inspiring a conversation about suicide. However, it also received swift backlash from experts for its graphic depiction of suicide, among other issues related to mental health.
Research suggests that internet searches for suicide increased following the show’s release in 2017. A study published earlier this year also found an association between a small increase in suicide rates and the show’s debut.
″’13 Reasons Why’ Season 1 was the first ― and to my knowledge, the only ― time there was a universal, global consensus on the negative impact of a television production addressing the issues of mental health and suicide,” Reidenberg said.
The rise of social media platforms
Research emerged on how excessive use can take a huge toll on our mental well-being. Online bullying reached new, upsetting heights. The cry for unplugging and reconnecting to our pre-tech lives hit a peak around the middle of the decade. And many people turned to social platforms to discuss their own mental health experiences, share memes and commiserate about being sad online together.
The fact is that social media has had both extremely positive and extremely negative effects on how we talk about mental health now.
“Over the last 10 years, there has been increased attention on social media and its impact on people, with a fair amount of research now showing that there can be some negative impacts on social isolation, social comparison and depression for some people, Reidenberg said.
“At the same time, social media has some significant benefits such as it provides a wealth of resources and access to information that didn’t exist before. Social media can also provide huge numbers of connections to people who in turn can provide support, reassurance, help and care in times of crisis or need,” he added.
Celebrities opening up about their own mental health
The rise of celebrity candor about their personal experiences has arguably been one of the most positive advances in mental health in the last decade. Public figures ― from the British royals to musicians to actors ― were more outspoken than ever about their mental health conditions, therapy, self-care and more.
Public figures like Demi Lovato and Prince Harry were part of advocacy groups and anti-stigma campaigns. Former first lady Michelle Obama spoke about the importance of mental health care, especially for veterans and people of color. Athletes including NBA player Kevin Love brought attention to mental health in the sports world.
This type of openness with the public is what encouraged actor Chyler Leigh to discuss her own experience with bipolar disorder. The “Supergirl” and “Grey’s Anatomy” star recently partnered with Be Vocal, an initiative that encourages people to speak up about mental health.
“There have been tons of celebrities that have come forward, been brave and spoken about their own journey,” Leigh told HuffPost. “That is incredibly inspiring on my behalf because I can see people who have been willing to put themselves out there and ― judged or not judged ― just be open enough to share their struggles.”
Celebrities talking about their own mental health also helps their fans connect with each other, Leigh said.
“I’ve watched communities build among the fans. You see this domino effect of how incredibly important it is to share your story,” she said.
What we want to see in the next decade
There is still progress to be made, and experts hope to see more strides in the coming 10 years. The priority for both Dalack and Reidenberg is getting people the mental health treatment that they need.
“Over the next decade, I’d love to see improved access to mental health care across the nation,” Dalack said. “This will require efforts from insurance companies, physicians, as well as politicians. Those of us working in the field will need to continue to innovate new, cost-effective treatments that leverage technology and reach folks in remote and rural communities. We all need to be held accountable.
And, ultimately, this means treating mental health conditions just like any other ailment.
“In the most broad sense, I hope that in 10 years people will live understanding that mental health-related issues are no different than any other body or brain-related issues,” Reidenberg said. “If you aren’t feeling well, you have to talk to someone, regardless of the origin of the illness.”
As for me, I hope the landscape is once again different in a decade. I want to one day stop writing about suicide and stigma. Not because I’m not passionate about my job, but because the outcome has improved so much that there isn’t anything to write. That’s a 10-year challenge worth fighting for.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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