Denouncing the Stigmas Around Mental Illness

In chapter 15 of Americanah, Ifemelu becomes depressed. Adichie handles it in a very impressive way; it’s genuine, realistic, and most importantly, it creates a dialogue. Ifemelu forgets to eat, refuses to leave her room, and cuts off contact with the outside world. When her friend Ginika brings up the idea of depression, Ifemelu brushes it off, saying that “depression was what happened to Americans” (194). The perceptions of and stigma surrounding mental illnesses in Nigeria are so intense that she can’t even entertain the notion that she may be depressed. This idea that only privileged Americans are allowed to be sick in such a way is concerning. Mental illness is a very real problem that has only recently started being discussed in America; opening a dialogue is one of the best ways to move towards diminishing the shame that many sufferers are conditioned to feel. Although Ifemelu says that “nobody in Kinshasa had panic attacks” (195), I’m certain that plenty of people experienced panic attacks; it’s just that no one was willing to talk about it.

While I do not have personal experience with mental illness as a Nigerian woman, I do as an American woman. Some may argue that Americans do not hold shame around mental illnesses, but I disagree – there is definitely a stigma involved. Yes, we do talk about it more openly than other cultures and it is given more credit, but that doesn’t mean that being mentally ill is totally accepted. Sufferers are often accused of faking illness or abusing the prescription drugs they need to function. Phrases like “I’m OCD about that” or “she almost gave me a panic attack” are overused by healthy people; this diminishes the perceived severity of very real conditions. Mental illness is often ignored or passed off as something much simpler. On the other hand, some people treat sufferers like dangerously fragile things, like a single word will shatter a person. While this is true for some, there are plenty of ill people who are strong and capable. A person is not defined by whether or not they have a mental illness. Generalizing people in such a way is toxic.

Further proof of an American stigma lies with how mentally ill people are conditioned to behave. It isn’t socially acceptable to talk openly about illness. It makes people uncomfortable to know that you’re not entirely healthy. Mention clinical depression or bipolar disorder to someone; their immediate reaction is usually one of withdrawal, and things instantly become awkward. There is only way for people to learn about and more fully accept mental illnesses – we have to create and maintain a dialogue. We cannot only discuss illness in regards to one type of person. People of every age, race, gender, size, sexual orientation, and ethnicity can experience mental illness – our discussions need to be open and diverse, so we can work towards destigmatizing illness for everyone.

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One thought on “Denouncing the Stigmas Around Mental Illness

  1. I agree. The words that most have in mind when mental illness is discussed are broken and unbalanced. When most people are confronted with a person with mental illness they see someone broken that they have to work especially hard to help. In many cases, this creates a barrier between people. As soon as someone knows that they have a mental illness, the person treats them differently. It’s an almost subconscious thing, an attempt to help something not fully understood. In an attempt to protect the “broken” person the other separates themselves from them. What is truly needed is to treat each other with compassion and understanding, not to divide and distance those who are different. The simplest thing is to care for them, ask “How can I help” or “What can I change?” Most of all, showing them you care about them despite their illness can be the most helpful thing too do. This is where I felt that the people in Americanah failed. They recognized her as sick, but didn’t recognize it or make any change to help her deal with it. They let her spiral into a well of depression, seemingly without friends to help her. It may not have been their fault. Perhaps, as you mentioned, they were just not adequately trained to recognize it. In any case, we must be trained to recognize these illnesses, both internally and externally, to be able to change and help those with it. Only through proper understanding can we be truly accommodating and helpful to those with mental illness.

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