Internalized Stigmas: How We Deceive Ourselves

By Michael McGough


            Discussions about the stigmas and societal norms regarding mental health are necessary but far from easy. Those who suffer from mental illnesses can be ostracized and ridiculed by others. There are parents who think their suicidal children are just seeking attention, and many people perpetuate regressive ideas about mental health. Countless individuals don’t seek mental health treatment out of fear that they’ll appear weak or broken. This concept is easy to understand, perhaps even easy to identify, but it is not a complete explanation of how stigmas function.

An often-overlooked aspect of mental health is how the stigmas of seeking treatment can be internalized. People with mental health issues can blame themselves for their situation rather than recognizing their illnesses and seeking help. These internalized stigmas are like parasites. Those who should seek help may not do so because they think their issues are illegitimate. Maybe it isn’t about values or beliefs. They may be very supportive of mental health awareness and treatment, but when it comes to themselves, it’s different. They criticize themselves for being weak or histrionic.

Choosing to seek psychological treatment is a difficult decision. It’s terrifying to admit that you need help. It can feel embarrassing, and that first therapy session, when a stranger asks deeply personal questions, can be so terrifying that many fail to return for a second session. Recognizing that you don’t possess full control of your thoughts and actions, that you need professional help to become healthier, is frightening. It feels safer to believe that you retain full control. 

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Individuals may misinterpret symptoms of their mental illnesses as weaknesses. Although somebody may be very compassionate and supportive of those who struggle with mental illnesses, they may not be compassionate toward themselves. Rather than accepting that they don’t have control and that spending an entire weekend in bed goes beyond laziness, they tell themselves that their situation is not a legitimate issue. It’s their fault. They’re just lazy, weak, and pathetic. The thought of going to therapy or going on medication feels unwarranted. They think it’s an excuse.

Before enrolling at the University of Minnesota, I was a student at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, where I only completed one term. When classes started, all was well. I was excited to take small discussion-based courses, but I began to feel a pervasive sense of dread within the first month. Moving is stressful so I thought my emotions were normal. Then I failed an exam. After that, it took me hours to fall asleep every night, and I began to sleep through my classes. I missed assignments and tests and spent all my time wading through a haze shame. Well, I also watched “Community” a lot.

Unable to find my footing, I decided to return to Minnesota and considered attending therapy. It made sense, but I felt like a failure. I felt like I was running away from an imaginary problem. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for college, and maybe depression was just an excuse. I decided that I didn’t need any professional help. But after a semester at the U of M, I didn’t feel any better even though my academic performance had improved. Nothing changed until I started going to therapy and taking antidepressants. Soon, my outlook on life improved, and it became easier to take classes seriously and speak to people more openly. Admitting that I didn’t have full control over myself was a pivotal moment in my life.

Discussions about the stigmas of mental health treatment rarely addressself-internalization. It’s easy to identify and understand how stigmas function in a group of people, but the process of internalizing stigmas is more nebulous. They become a tool of self-criticism. Someone who has internalized the idea that seeking help is a sign of weakness is not necessarily afraid of being perceived as weak. The stigma manipulates the individual into believing that they are weak when the truth is that they are ill and deserve help.

Wake Mag