I’ve always found the posters with messages along the lines of “mental illness is not incompetence” plastered around school ironic. The systems we have in place seemed to merely cry out for awareness while failing to provide tangible support for those with mental illnesses. After spending considerable time discussing the existing treatment and support mechanisms with our counselors, however, it became clear that a lack of resources is not the issue at SIS. Rather, it is the stigma associated not only with behaviors related to mental illness but also with a myriad of other relevant factors such as diagnostic classifications, hospitals, rehabilitation counselors, and support programs. In addition to exacerbating illnesses and the misconceptions associated with it, such stigma also prevents students from seeking and receiving help. This prevents us from making necessary revisions to support systems in existence without having students give feedback. To better address mental health on campus and improve the school’s existing programs, the breaking down of such stigma poses as a necessary first step in a long-term process.
Younger generations in Korea tend to hold more biases against individuals with psychiatric disabilities than those with physical illnesses. More often than not, many liken severe mental diseases to drug addiction, prostitution, and criminality. We tell ourselves that help is not deserved or necessary due to the perception that such problems are self-inflicted; it is commonly misunderstood that patients are in full control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them, unlike those with physical disabilities. As noted in a joint report released by the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health and Welfare, although stigmatizing attitudes toward individuals with mental health conditions are more prevalent among less educated groups, mental health professionals, health insurers, fiercely militant support groups, and patients themselves are not immune from such biases. Misconceptions about mental illness and corresponding beliefs, such as that all psychiatric patients are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared, that they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled, or that they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character, are widespread and only extends the breadth and scope of such stigma.
Protesting is a reactive strategy—it attempts to diminish negative attitudes toward mental illnesses. It fails, however, to promote positive outlooks supported by factual evidence, which is vital in properly informing the public to prevent the endorsement of discrimination and stigmatization. In addition to leading to improved attitudes, educational programs have been proven to be efficacious for a wide variety of participants, including adolescents, graduate students, community residents, and persons with mental illness themselves. Perhaps it is time SIS begins observing Mental Health Awareness Month as a whole. The school could collaborate with the Committee of Young Psychologists, a psychiatric facility nearby, or any willing friends and family, to provide educational sessions aimed at debunking the myths concerning mental health. In doing so, the school could effectively encourage the student body to seek appropriate treatment and reject negative stereotypes regarding mental health.