The way we frame mental illness matters

Deconstructing narratives of healing

The debates surrounding causes of mental illness and how to treat it have gone on for decades. How we discuss these issues matters. Mental illness stigma is enough of a problem when only 41% of adults with a mental health condition in this country receive help. We don’t need to contribute to that statistic by making mentally ill people feel hopeless about recovery.

Alarmist, clickbait headlines such as “The real cause of depression” are everywhere, and often frame mental illness in a dangerous light. They put the onus of healing entirely on the mentally ill person’s ability to change their circumstances, instead of considering genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors.

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, is one among many who criticize the use of antidepressants and the claim that a chemical imbalance in the brain causes depression. Hari’s book has drawn criticism, including from psychiatrist Carmine Pariante who warns that “demonizing [antidepressants] plays into stigma meaning that, tragically, more people will be held back from receiving help for a debilitating condition.” Antidepressants don’t work for everyone and come with side effects, but they can have a tremendous positive effect on someone’s life and health, and can save lives.

External factors do contribute to illness, but changing those factors alone doesn’t stop people from being mentally ill or heal them automatically. Chronic mental illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, occur over a lifetime and never permanently go away.

Framing mental illness in terms of behavior that can be controlled alienates those who can’t change their circumstances due to social and economic position.This leans into classism: Not everyone can quit a stressful job, spend more time with friends and family or take some time off of school, much less control instances like cars breaking down, computers failing or becoming sick.

Insisting that mental health solutions are up to individuals ignores the social and political forces that make mental illness more difficult to live with and mental health services less accessible. When seemingly simple tasks like eating or brushing your teeth feel insurmountable, the last thing you want to do is sit down and plan an overhaul of your whole life.

What is actually useful and productive for those with mental illness to know is this: Help is out there, it is not impossible to acquire, you will not feel this way forever, and you will feel better by taking one calculated step at a time.

If you need help, the Student Health and Counseling Center has walk-in counseling hours Monday–Friday. A counselor will meet with you to discuss your needs and can refer you to a separate therapist that takes your insurance and fits your schedule, or help you get involved with other solutions. PSU’s C.A.R.E. team can assist you if you are in crisis and need to take time off of school.

If you are considering suicide, please know that you are not alone and there are many resources available to you. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255. If you would prefer to use a chat service, there are counselors available to talk to you anytime at