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.