Malik ’18: Reducing mental health stigma

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Though there are not sufficient words to describe the tragedy of Hyoun Ju Sohn’s GS death on March 31 and we cannot know what led to his suicide, we can take steps to help members of our community who are suffering psychologically and who are not getting the help they need by continuing our dialogue about mental health.

As someone who received psychotherapy during high school and through Counseling and Psychological Services at Brown, I believe we need to work toward reducing mental health stigma in our campus dialogue. This is an essential step to take in order to address the psychological needs of all members of our community.

There is more than one kind of mental health stigma, as Graham Davey, professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, outlined in an August 2013 article in Psychology Today. First, there is social stigma, which involves prejudice and discrimination against people with certain psychological conditions. The second type is self-stigma, which includes people perceiving that they will face discrimination for their psychological conditions and feeling shame as a result.

As part of this discussion, the Undergraduate Council of Students hosted an open forum Wednesday for students to discuss how to grow mental health services, better convey information about those resources and destigmatize seeking help, The Herald reported Thursday. In a December guest column in The Herald, UCS also contended that mental health stigma is an issue on campus and pointed to the fact that, according to CAPS, “25 percent of students have previously been medicated for a mental health condition before entering campus and 40 percent have previously sought counseling.” But less than one-fifth of students draw on CAPS resources every year. To reduce social stigma on campus, we have to bring to light correct and accurate information about various mental conditions. Through this, we can dispel harmful stereotypes that are part of popular culture and reduce negative attitudes about various conditions, which can create an environment that is more accepting and comforting. When people with certain psychological conditions do not feel they will be mistreated, they may find it easier to reach out for help when they need to. 

There are a variety of methods that our campus can utilize to spread this correct information about various conditions. In its column, UCS called for annual “panel discussion, speakers and workshops facilitated by CAPS” to help expand conversations about mental health and decrease stigma. I agree that these can be useful ways to bring important information out into the community.

We should have regular and mandatory information sessions for each class and for graduate students. If feasible, such programs could be held once a semester or once a year — they could help make our transitions back to campus after breaks easier. Such programs could also encourage productive conversations about mental health on campus, bringing the topic out of the dark and making it part of the open discussions that Brown community members have about other important matters, such as gender, race and sexuality. Those who felt uncomfortable about attending these programs could be given other options, such as meeting privately with specially-trained peer or faculty advisers.

Another advantage to spreading accurate information is that it can help people who are experiencing psychological pain better understand what they are going through. When I was very young and first experienced the aspects of my condition, I was scared and thought there was something especially wrong with me. When I finally found out the name for my condition was obsessive-compulsive disorder, read literature about it and received treatment, I felt relieved that I could make sense of my pain and found comfort in knowing that I was not alone in my experience. I fear that people frequently do not seek treatment because they do not fully understand what they are experiencing, and we need to remain mindful of this when determining how to convey information on mental health.

To help people better understand the psychological pain that they may be experiencing, we could create informative pamphlets and guidebooks that would be readily available in numerous places around campus, such as the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center or the libraries. Electronic versions could also be available for students who preferred to digitally read such texts. Though we cannot overwhelm people who would prefer to not be reminded of their conditions, we have to make sure that there are multiple ways for valuable information to be obtained in order to address the various preferences that people have.

But there are two problems that can arise from focusing on conditions with particular medical names. One, as Davey explained in his Psychology Today article, is that the medical model of mental health — with its emphasis on illness and diagnosis — can exacerbate stigma by suggesting there is something abnormal about people with certain conditions. It can be challenging for students to find that what they feel is labeled as an “illness” or as a “disease.”

Though I was relieved when my experiences were given a particular name, I do not appreciate the name itself, which implies that I have a problem that should be fixed. While certain aspects of my condition still cause me hardships and difficulty, other aspects do not strike me as problematic. For example, the fact that I spend more time washing my hands than many other people is not an issue, as long as I care for my skin with lotion to make sure it does not become uncomfortably dry. I do not think I have to change this particular behavior, though it is associated with my OCD.

As our campus continues to talk about how to address mental health stigma, our dialogue needs to include the variety of conditions. But we should not allow students to experience negative attitudes about themselves because of what they feel psychologically; therefore, different conditions should be framed as qualities that could potentially lead to psychological hardships. We should emphasize that people should seek help when their conditions are deemed to be problematic and cause emotional pain and suffering.

The second problem that arises from focusing on conditions with medical names is that we might inadvertently imply that only people who can put a specific medical name to what they are facing can seek treatment. When I started seeing a psychotherapist during high school, I felt wrong about discussing matters that did not relate to OCD. But through therapy, I have come to realize that I can talk about a variety of different matters that cause me psychological hardship, even if they do not directly relate to my condition.

I applaud CAPS for listing on its homepage the various matters students discuss with CAPS psychotherapists, which include many topics without medical names, such as “adjustment to Brown,” “motivation difficulties” and “family concerns.” Therefore, in our continuing dialogue, we should encourage people who might not be able to put a name to their psychological pain to still seek help.

At Brown, we strive to create a community that is open and accepting for people of all backgrounds. We must be considerate of each other’s various psychological make-ups. Together, we must continue our discussion about mental health. We have to pay attention to the emotional lives of ourselves and of each other, and we have to make sure members of our community feel safe and supported to seek the help they need.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at

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  1. HaroldAMaio says:

    —-Reducing mental health stigma

    Like directing the stigma of rape, the stigma of Jews you are harming. You have chosen a different group, and doing the same harm.

    Directing a prejudice against any disability group violates not only ethics, but law as well, the ADA.

    Chancellor Cohen: As you would not allow the word associations stigma of blindness, deafness, paralysis at Brown, you have a responsibility under the ADA not to allow this violation of rights.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

  2. Don’t hold your breath. Brown has been talking about this for years. Even this tragedy is unlikely to force the rusty cogs of the administration to turn. I wish you luck nevertheless.

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