Suffocating: The Stigmas of Mental Illness

By Arielle Morris

Art by Annie Qiu



For centuries, talking about mental health has been taboo. Huge stigmas are imposed on psychological disorders, leading to many people staying silent. These stigmas are deadly. Today, many people still suffer in private for fear of being judged if they seek help or because their “parents don’t believe in mental illness.”[1] Slurs like “psycho” or “bipolar” have become commonplace insults. When someone is diagnosed with depression, their reality is constantly discredited and they are told that it could be so much worse. Would someone with a broken arm ever be told it is not really that bad and that they should just fix it? The mere thought of this is laughable because there is significantly less stigma around most physical injuries. With the suicide rate being the highest it has been in 30 years, ignoring or denying the pervasive impact of mental illness is lethal.[2] Stigmas can feel suffocating as they prevent people from getting help or sharing their struggles with even their closest friends and family.


Although there are countless people who perpetuate the stigmatization of mental illness, many people are doing the opposite. In today’s society, many young people are in the process of changing the dialogue surrounding mental illness both to bring awareness to psychiatric disorders as well as to eradicate related stigmas.


Many celebrities have begun speaking out about mental illness to normalize it, telling their fans that they are not alone. One such celebrity is Ariana Grande, who is open about her struggles with PTSD and anxiety, which worsened following a terrorist attack at one of her concerts. From interviews discussing her struggle with PTSD to her song “Breathin’, Grande has frequently spoken about this topic. She told People Magazine, “I think a lot of people have anxiety, especially right now, my anxiety has anxiety … I’ve always had anxiety. I’ve never really spoken about it because I thought everyone had it, but when I got home from tour it was the most severe I think it’s ever been.”[3] The fact that only twenty years ago a celebrity who opened up about their mental illness would be shunned and looked down upon really speaks volumes about our progression as a society. In 2009, Britney Spears’ mental health issues came under spotlight and news outlets described them as “the latest Spears’ incident” and as her descent from, “pop princess to train wreck.”[4] The contrast between the acceptance of Ariana Grande’s mental health struggles and the mocking of Britney Spears’ is striking. Ariana Grande and other celebrities who use their platforms to start the conversation about mental illness help bring public awareness to a point where we can openly discuss it.

Demi Lovato is another celebrity who uses her platform to discuss mental illness. She is very open about her depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, and past struggles with self harm. She shares her story because she wants to ensure that others don’t feel alone or ashamed of their struggles with mental illness and highlight that the topic is not something to shy away from. In her MTV documentary about mental health called “Stay Strong,” Demi said, “Why not air all my secrets? Why not share my story because some people need to hear it?”[5] The fact that interviews like this even exist suggests that we are making strides towards being able to freely discuss mental health in everyday life. Previously, references to mental illness were reserved for psychiatric hospitals or petty gossip, but now can be discussed openly in everyday contexts. We still have significant progress to make towards a society without mental health stigma, but the biggest accomplishment we as a society have made when it comes to mental illness is that it is discussed at all. Influencers like Demi Lovato who use their popularity to relate to those suffering from mental illnesses to elevate awareness have brought our society forward.

We have begun separating the illness from the person just as we do with physical illnesses. If a person has cancer, they are a person fighting cancer, not a cancerous person. If a person has major depressive disorder, they are a person dealing with depression, not a depressed person. Mental illness is not who you are, it is an illness that you live with.

Despite all of these improvements we as a society have made when it comes to mental illness, there is still a long way to go. The suicide rate is proof in and of itself. In 2018, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.; suicide is an epidemic.[6] People are still scared to share their mental health status for fear that they will be judged or looked down upon. Experiencing mental illnesses can be exhausting and suffocating and sharing one’s struggles with the world can only add to that stress. It is much easier for celebrities with huge platforms and adoring fans to be candid with their mental health than regular people. However, if we continue to create an environment where people can feel comfortable sharing their mental health struggles, we all benefit. Hopefully in the future, we will make more strides toward accepting mental illness and looking at it just as compassionately as any other illness. The stigmas that we maintain because of a history of both ignoring and fearing mental illness will hopefully diminish, but only if we work to destigmatize mental health issues and be more compassionate to those struggling.



[1] Edelen, Danei. “Why Mental Illness Stigma is Lethal.” nami.org, National Alliance on Mental Illness, 7 September 2016, https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2016/Why-Mental-Illness-Stigma-is-Lethal. Accessed 10 October 2020.

[2] Edelen, “Why Mental Illness Stigma is Lethal.”

[3] People Magazine. “Ariana Grande Opens Up About Her Battles with PTSD and Anxiety: 'It's a Real Thing'.” PEOPLE.com, People Magazine, 2018, people.com/health/ariana-grande-ptsd-anxiety/. Accessed 10 October 2020.

[4] Goldman, Russel. “Latest Spears' Incident Raises Mental Health Questions.” abcnew.go.com, ABC News, 13 April 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=4087969&page=1. Accessed 5 November 2020.

[5] Carroll, Heather. “Demi Lovato: Bipolar But Staying Strong.” treatmentadvocacycenter.org, Treatment Advocacy Center, www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/fixing-the-system/features-and-news/2036-demi-lovato-bipolar-but-staying-strong. Accessed 10 October 2020.

[6] National Institute of Mental Health. “Suicide.” nimh.nih.gov, National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml. Accessed 7 November 2020.