Normalization Vs. Destigmatizing

I work at a summer camp. I’ve worked at said camp for three years and was in a training program for three years, so I know kids pretty well. I work with the younger age groups, starting with 6-7 years olds, last year being with 4-5-year-olds, and now back with 6-7 year-olds. Recently, I’ve noticed a huge shift in how kids act…obviously.

These kids didn’t get their first years of formative school, so most of them lack basic social skills. They are very handsy with each other, have a lot of tears, and lack maturity. I’ve learned to work with it, but I noticed something else this year in particular- a mass diagnosis of ADHD in kids.

As someone who’s been in therapy and dealt with my own mental health “things,” I am 100% for normalizing mental health. I think treatment should be more common, and diagnosis should be less stigmatized.

As of 2015, 8 million people have died from some form of mental illness, and according to WHO, 700,000 people die from suicide every year. It is something I have always felt strongly about raising awareness for and advocating for those who can’t. That being said, I think there’s a difference between destigmatizing and normalizing. 

Merriam-Webster defines destigmatize as “to remove associations of shame or disgrace from,” whereas they define normalize as, “to make (something) conform to or reduce (something) to a norm or standard.” Looking at those two definitions, they look really similar. But in my eyes, and I’m sure many others, there are some key differences. See, if we’re talking about mental illness, I would say if you normalize it, you’re referring to it as something that everyone should expect to have at some point in their lives. If I were to talk about destigmatizing it, I would be referring to the fact that we need to support those who are suffering and remove harmful language that will diminish them. I feel like lately, there are so many people confusing the two terms, and not for the better. 

At least once a day on the internet, I see someone post about a condition they have in an attempt to destigmatize it and let people know what they deal with every day. And, of course, some comments will say, “I  get nervous in social settings. Maybe I have anxiety too!” I take this two ways.

I think it’s good that this is helping people realize they may need to seek help for their feelings. Still, I feel like this just perpetuates the idea that everyone who gets nervous in a social setting has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Half of the people on the internet are self-diagnosed, and that’s not an assumption. People openly admit it. The ability for people on the internet to self-diagnose themselves with an illness and then attempt to educate others on it furthers the fact that mental health conditions are treated as a normal word that can be thrown around.

There is so much jumping to conclusions today. As I mentioned, with the sudden spike in kids with ADHD. I remember when my brother was first brought to be tested for ADHD. He was 8, I believe. And they brushed it aside because he was a kid. Yes, your kid isn’t going to want to sit down in school for 8 hours a day quietly. Yes, kids are hyper. That does not mean they automatically have ADHD! Of course, he did have it in my brother’s case, but it was so much better to see him diagnosed later on. Children these days are being handed ADHD medication in mass amounts, and I don’t have the condition, but I’ve heard of some of the side effects of it. So now, not only are kids being given medication with some aggravating side effects, but it’s also causing a shortage of medicine for the people that actually need it. This can be seen today with any condition, honestly.

I saw a lot more of this when television shows like 13 reasons why and Euphoria came out, both of which have been accused of romanticizing mental illness. It was hard for me to understand at first because I didn’t glorify those shows, but I can certainly see how it did for some people. Especially Euphoria with the pretty visuals and outfits while a character is doing hard drugs and dealing with bipolar disorder. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that people are heavily influenced.

When people see something like bipolar disorder portrayed in a “pretty” manner with cool colors and shine, their perception of that illness disappears. Suddenly, people want to be cool like the characters on the TV show, despite all of the characters on Euphoria being deeply disturbed individuals. Euphoria was good at first because it was honest about how teenagers act. This is great, but if you’re going with the honesty aspect, maybe don’t romanticize the worst parts of life that someone can go through.

I’ve had this conversation with people before, and the biggest argument I get is, “Well, what’s the issue? You can’t tell someone they have or don’t have depression, you’re not in their head.” This is completely true, and I’m not saying that. I’m saying that our “positive” language around mental illness can cause more harm than good. Daniel Fu of UCLA wrote about the normalization of mental illness and the language teens use. “He told me that during the period when his depression was at its worst, he felt that what he was experiencing was not the same as the “depression” he was hearing about and seeing among his peers. He noticed that the word was used loosely to describe feelings that did not reflect what he was experiencing.”

He explains that this made him feel that his personal struggles were considered normal because the people around him loosely thought the word around. I can speak to this one with experience. For years, I brushed aside what I was dealing with because everyone told me that people with depression have messy rooms and they can’t get up in the morning. But here I was, getting up every morning and doing what I needed to do- when every online screams depression symptoms at you, and you don’t match them, of course, you’ll feel invalidated. 

Like Daniel Fu said, “Mental illness is complicated; it is not black and white; different levels of severity exist. Normalization can discourage those experiencing severe mental illness from opening up and even cause self-doubt in their own mental state assessment.” This is why I’m such a big advocate of destigmatizing versus normalizing it. Mental illness and mental health problems are common, so we need to support those going through hard times. But mental illness is not the new normal that everyone is going to deal with

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