Opinion – The Politicization of Mental Health: How to Break Down the Stigma & the Silence
Katie Posthuma-Bain shares her thoughts on the politicization of mental health.
Suicide. An impulsive decision that often results in death. In Milwaukee, jumping from the Hoan Bridge may not be the way most suicide attempts take place, but the annual average of one known death, according to Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, is still one too many.
On February 21, my classmate Ashley Tannert and I met with mental health advocate and Hoan Bridge barrier petition creator, Katie Posthuma-Bain. The greatest takeaway from our conversation was that I was exposed to a new issue surrounding the discussion of mental health.
A week before Katie met with Ashley and I, the horrific Parkland shooting in Florida took place. If mental health was not already an incredibly hot topic in the United States, it most definitely was now. Posthuma-Bain highlighted on the fact that her petition to get barriers installed on the Hoan Bridge is going to be a bit of a struggle, especially with recent events in our country.
According to Posthuma-Bain, the Parkland shooting had a huge impact on the way mental health in the media has been covered.
“Mental health for the first time has really become politicized,”Posthuma-Bain said. “It has now become something politicians have to be careful about how they take a stance on the issue.”
As a person living in the United States, I never realized truly how much stigma surrounds the topic of mental health and suicide. Travis Pipes, an NFL sportswriter in recovery came to our class in April to discuss his story, his recovery, and advocacy for mental health awareness. A shocking point he brought up in his presentation and discussion was that when he goes to schools to speak, oftentimes the administration bans the word “suicide” from being included in his speech and conversation with students.
It made me think back to my own high school days and how my administration handled the discussion around mental health. The truth is they really didn’t. I remember being at the most high-stress points in my life at ages 16-18. From AP classes, to honors classes, to theatre, to student council, to honor societies, to a social life, to college applications, and much, much more, I was at the lowest quality of my own mental health at that time in my life.
My school did not even send out a mental health survey until my last semester of high school. Granted, they did send out counseling department sheets for students to fill out throughout my years there, but it still wasn’t enough.
I was in a privileged position going to a private school with access to wonderful guidance counselors and teachers who cared, but I still felt isolated. My mental health and my physical health weren’t the priority, but rather how many advanced classes can I take and how many clubs can I be in to have the best college application.
Pipes made the powerful statement that “Connecting with people/relationships is the only thing that matters in life.”
The connections we make in life, the relationships we care for and nurture, and the people we help and inspire with our words is what makes the difference in our world. When a public speaker like Travis, or a petitioner like Katie, makes the courageous step to transform people’s lives and protect people from tragedy, it makes the fight for mental health that much more difficult when others are silencing, censoring, and ignoring the issue at hand.
Politicization of mental health is a new territory in politics that really didn’t exist to the level it does now. After countless shootings, acts of terror, and other horrific acts, mental health has gotten a bad rap, and tangled into a mess of politics and uninformed individuals based on the stigma surrounding mental health.
Just as each individual must worry and care for their physical health, the same is to be done for their mental health. It may be incredibly difficult for individuals, especially in the United States to be granted access to mental health care. The conversation surrounding mental health has come into full force in recent years, but the conversation hasn’t always been the most productive or accurate.
There have been great strides in peeling the layers of stigma back from the topic of mental health, but the topic of mental health has also been thrown into the conversation surrounding gun control and the acts of terror happening in the United States.
Posthuma-Bain mentioned how politicians are very careful of who and what they support and put their name behind because of the current climate surrounding mental health. Although she has received an overwhelming response of currently over 700 signatures on her petition for barriers on the Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she knows that taking the petition to lawmakers will be a difficult fight to win.
Politicians are beginning to take the conversation around mental health very seriously in what they support because unfortunately, mental health is becoming a political party issue to take sides on when it should always be a bipartisan issue. All people should have proper access to mental health care and all people should have the opportunity to live their most genuine lives without the fear of a trail of stigma following them wherever they go, and throughout the course of their life.
Dr. Barbara Moser from Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee was helpful in me further understanding what Katie was describing to me. Barbara agreed that mental health has recently now become a political stance in terms of gun policies, health care services, and much more.
However, Dr. Moser wonders if the politicization of mental health is creating even more stigma. “In terms of gun policies, singling out people with mental health issues creates a bit of an issue,” Moser said. “I totally understand wanting to background check and having a mental health evaluation for gun owners, but I wonder if then singling out that people with mental health issues shouldn’t be gun owners, in my eyes creates even more stigma, and kind of accomplishes the opposite.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to view a screening of the film, “The Ripple Effect.” The film’s main plot followed the life of Kevin Hines, a Golden Gate Bridge suicide attempt survivor. The main message that I got from viewing the film was that suicide or suicidal thoughts, or really mental health, is not a matter of social status, political affiliation, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc., even though all of those can play a factor in a person’s mental health. It truly is a matter of just being a human being.
Every human at some point in their life will go through a difficult struggle, most likely there will be several in a lifetime. However, some people do experience these life moments to a much higher degree of stress, sadness, or depression. Every individual should be an advocate for their own mental health. Whether you deal with anxiety, heightened stress, depression, a disorder, or any other contributing factor to the struggle with mental health, or you don’t, mental health needs to be made a priority for everyone.
Granted, some individuals deal with mental health issues to a much higher degree than others, and they need more help to make sure their health is under control and being monitored. Despite this, every individual should be entitled to mental health care, in addition to physical health care, but sadly some only have access to one, or neither. It is not an issue that should be politicized as a matter of political party, but rather should be a bipartisan issue.
I spoke recently with Olivia Hickman, a freshman majoring in International Studies at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Olivia lost her older brother on March 2, 2016 to suicide. He was a student at UWM and was depressed. He jumped off the roof of his apartment building at 26 years old. Her family was blindsided and devastated by her brother’s impulsive and tragic attempt.
When I asked Hickman how she sees suicide and the discussion around mental health being politicized, she said how she heard once that “You cannot remove politics from social problems.”
“If we could talk about mental health without stigma, everyone who supports mental health should support a bill regardless of repercussions,” Hickman said. “It’s a human issue, not a policy issue.”
It was important for me to talk directly with a person who has dealt with suicide and the lasting effects, because it humanizes the sometimes dehumanizing and ruthless game of politics. Hickman could not have worded it any better. Mental health and suicide prevention is a human issue. It is not an issue of a vote, an election, or a policy. It is an issue of protecting individual’s health and providing everyone with the resources needed to flourish and live their best lives.
Personally, I believe that in today’s media, our current climate dilutes what the mental health conversation should truly entail. It should be just as much of a human right to be protected both physically and mentally by our health system. It is a confusing ordeal when society then must deal with deciding what their stance is on a topic that should be universal and not stigmatized.
Although the politicization of mental health might be a deterrent in the fight to get barriers put in place, or the ability to educate students on their own mental health, it should not discourage the conversation, nor the fight to end the stigma surrounding mental health.