How we talk about mental health matters.
What better way to usher in awareness about mental health month and reduce the stigma surrounding behavioral health issues, than hearing that Donald Trump called the woman who accused him of rape “a nut job,” and “mentally sick.”
This ill-informed, inappropriate characterization should come as no surprise coming from a man whose emotional evolution got stuck in 1972.
If not 1952.
As with most of his clueless comments, they are not only insulting, they are long past their expiration date and out of step with how we as a culture have generally progressed.
Public understanding of mental illnesses like PTSD and depression has come a long way baby, at least from the 1970s.
When Senator John Fetterman disclosed that he had checked into Walter Reed National Medical Center to be treated for clinical depression the response ( Fox News notwithstanding) was overwhelmingly one of admiration and compassion.
It wasn’t long ago that admission of depression or mental illness could jeopardize a career, or derail a political career.
In 1972 the politics of mental health loomed over another major political figure.
Just over 50 years ago politicians, the media, and society treated as a scandal the discovery that democratic Vice-presidential hopeful Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri had been hospitalized for depression. Back then the idea that a political figure was seeking psychiatric help let alone electric shock therapy was astonishing.
Treatment for mental health carried a heavy stigma of shame.
It is something I know first-hand.
The Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Six months before Eagleton’s psychiatric secret was revealed, I was sneaking off to a therapist appointment in my suburban town. A clandestine operation worthy of any cold war secret, the information of my teenage visits to a psychiatrist was on a need-to-know basis.
My mother was sworn to secrecy, and no one outside the immediate family knew.
It was so shame-filled and hush-hush that even my best friend never had a clue. When I would regularly beg off for after-school activities every Tuesday afternoon my cover to friends was I was seeing a cardiologist for a heart problem.
No one questioned the legitimacy of an otherwise healthy 17-year-old girl having cardiac problems that required weekly appointments. The heart metaphor was an apt one and I suppose having atrial fibrillation felt a lot safer than admitting I had emotional problems including depression.
The topic was taboo.
No one wanted to be perceived as cuckoo or crazy. An admission of mental health problems could mean you were one step away from becoming a psycho in a straight jacket headed for a padded cell in the looney bin.
Emotionally charged and derogatory references about people with mental illness appeared commonly not only in print but on TV, in movies, and in day-to-day conversation.
Who in their right mind wanted to be considered having a screw loose? Or off their rocker? Sicko was common as was nutty, loony, disturbed, and demented.
It was all pretty depressing.
In the early 1970s, the question among the psychiatric community was, ‘Does childhood depression even exist?’”
Teens and children could experience moodiness, but that was all part of “growing up.”
The conventional wisdom at the time held that major depression was a disorder primarily of middle-aged and menopausal women and did not happen in children who were considered not capable of experiencing symptoms of depression.
The diagnosis of childhood depression was missed for decades.
The school was wholly inadequate in addressing mental health issues.
Not when we had textbooks that recommended: “You can overcome upset feelings by doing something around the house.” No matter how many hankies I may have ironed for my father, my anxiety and depression never seemed to lift.
I give credit to my mother who through the midcentury fog of denial eventually heard my cries for help and my expressed desire to talk to a therapist. The stigma was crippling, but not enough to stop me from seeking help.
Times have changed. Mental health problems have not.
We are in an epidemic of teenage girls suffering from depression.
There is an unprecedented level of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts among America’s high school students. A CDC survey from 2021 pointed to nearly three in five teen girls who said they feel “persistently sad or hopeless” and one in four said they have seriously considered dying by suicide. That’s the highest rate in a decade.
The good news is that teens are talking more about mental health now than in the past and possibly reducing the stigma, which may have led more of them to feel comfortable reporting it to the CDC. Schools need to start educating their staff and families all what mental health is what supports are available and how they can access their services
The openness to talking about mental health in a compassionate way and removing the stigma is crucial.
The only one worthy of being called “a sicko” is that “nut job” Donald Trump.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Sally, good post. I remember Eagleston’s resignation. He simply could not run in America at that time with his history. Just thinking about strides in care since that time, around the 1980s forward. Managing a mental illness became more the norm rather than trying to cure it. Helping the patient understand it put a lid on it was part of this process.
1 in 5 people have some type of depression, from mild to severe. That means for every Facebook family that has been polished and dressed up, one may have some challenges. Sadly, we compare ourselves to that perfect Facebook family, when it is all about perception.
Thanks for sharing this, Keith
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The facebook or instagram family that looks happy and living a great life may not be at all. Suffering from depression or any emotional challenge can be misleading. One learns to put on a very happy face.
As far as we’ve come, I do wonder if we had a presidential candidate today who admitted to having electro-shock therapy ( or electric convulsive therapy as its known today) would be something the public would accept. Nonetheless, we’ve come quite far. I can recallEd Muskie tearing up and that put the kibosh on his presidential run.
The “hush hush” approach to mental and emotional problems only exacerbates them for the people involved. There is no shame in discussing these issues openly. It’s healthy. But still some people shy away. I told an octogenarian neighbor that I felt depressed. Her answer, “I never get depressed,” and then she changed the subject. “My God,” I thought, “How can you reach your 80s and not get depressed sometimes?” Just sayin…
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That is sad that someone could be so shut down emotionally that they claim never to be depressed. It’s part of the human condition we all experience and there is no shame in admitting it. It connects us in our humanity as much as the joyous experiences do.
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