Let’s Talk About Cancer (I Mean, Mental Illness) by Andrea Kemble

In 2013, there were 580,350 deaths by cancer in the United States which makes cancer the 2nd leading cause of death. At some point or another in your life, you will know someone who is or has been touched by cancer. When this happens, you will probably share your condolences and say something along the lines of, “You will make it through this” or “You’re a fighter”. Talking about cancer is not a taboo subject. It’s a terrible and unfortunate thing that happens to people and we talk about it openly.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you become a fighter and a survivor. Going into remission is lavishly celebrated – as it should be – because you’ve fought and your body won. You’ve beaten cancer. Anything you could think to buy can be bought with portions of the sale going to cancer research, especially if it is pink for breast cancer.

Well, what if I replace the word ‘cancer’ with ‘mental illness’ or ‘suicide’? The way we respond changes drastically. We shy away from the subject like it’s the plague. Why do we only talk about it in hushed tones and behind closed door as if it is not a problem? In 2012, 9.6 million Americans aged 18 and older suffered from a serious mental illness. In 2013, there were 1.6 million people diagnosed with new cases of cancer. The prevalence of mental illness is higher than cancer and yet, we are afraid to talk about it.

However, cancer wasn’t always so easy to discuss. A generation ago society looked at cancer the same way we look at mental health now. There used to be stigma and shame associated with a cancer diagnoses, which left many hurting individuals afraid to talk about it or seek help. Years ago, cancer was something that happened to you because you were a bad person. Changes in education and awareness has brought cancer out of that shadow and into the light of truth. We know today that no one deserves cancer, it is not a punishment, and there is no shame in the diagnoses.

As someone whose life has been touched by both cancer and mental illness within the same year, I cannot say that I am any different from the majority of people. In any given social situation, I can volunteer that I lost my mother to cancer. However, I do not volunteer the information that I am a suicide attempt survivor. Why you may ask? I am afraid of being judged. There is a stigma surrounding mental health.

Dr. Graham C.L. Davey wrote in Psychology Today about these stigmas and why they are so detrimental. The most common stigma of mental illness is that those who are suffering from it are more violent and dangerous. Employers are less likely to hire someone with a mental illness due to this stigma and efficient treatments and recovery for those who are suffering from mental illness are hindered. There is no scientific evidence supporting that those who have a mental illness are more violent or dangerous than someone who is not affected by a mental health issue.

In a study done in 2010, 62% of adolescents reported being socially rejected and losing friendships due to the stigma of their mental illness. This causes low self-esteem and a poorer quality of life. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 years old. More than 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental illness. If there was not a stigma around mental health, these individuals may have gotten treatment and recovered from their mental illness.

So what can we do? In the same way that society’s perception of cancer has changed over the course of history, we hope that the perception of mental health will change as well. Cancer stopped being a stigmatized when education and awareness efforts were expanded. Individuals broke out of that stigma and showed the world that they are fighters and survivors. Stories were shared, facts were taught, and perceptions were changed. Let’s do the same thing with mental health.

Make it a priority to know the signs of mental illnesses and suicidal behavior. Talk about your feelings, tell your stories, even when it feels uncomfortable. When you break the mold, you pave the way for others to volunteer their stories. When talking about mental health and suicide is no longer a taboo, more hurting people will seek the help they need. We must strip away the shame.

Are you hurting today? Please know that you are not alone, and that treatment is available and treatment works. Reach out by calling 2-1-1, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), texting LISTEN to 741-741, or chatting online at www.ImAlive.org. Do you have a story to tell? Let us help you tell your story, because your story matters. Reach out to us at support@pleaselive.org.