You Are Not a Doctor; Don’t Pretend to Be

Let’s eliminate the stigma associated with seeking help with mental disorders rather than encouraging isolation

One scene from A Beautiful Mind, a movie which follows mathematician John Nash’s descent into schizophrenia, does a fine job of demonstrating why individuals cannot handle mental illness on their own. Nash is talking with his psychiatrist, contending that he does not need help because he can “reason his way” out of his illness. His psychiatrist points out that this is impossible, because “your mind is where the problem is in the first place.”

Florence Gallez calls on victims of mental illness to try something we already know doesn’t work, and is often dangerous to the individual: to tough it out, build up resilience, and get better on their own. Not only does this view run counter to virtually all research we have at our disposal today, but it is akin to asking victims with cancer to just try really hard to overcome it by themselves without seeking medical attention. Your body is just as incapable of getting rid of an illness like cancer as your mind is incapable of getting rid of an illness like depression. In fact, your body may even stand a better chance, as there’s no “immune system of the mind.” Gallez claims that we have everything we need inside of us, and by focusing on our needs and shutting out the noise of the world, we’ll get better. Gallez is wrong. Let’s take a look at what science has established with respect to mental illness.

First, if you have a mental disorder, you are not responsible for it. It does not make you weak, and you are in no way to blame for your disorder. Furthermore, refusing to seek help doesn’t make you strong, tough, or more self-reliant; it makes you stubborn and will likely cause you to become more sick. The stigma surrounding mental illness is largely an artifact of a bygone era, when mental disorders were believed to be caused by sins, weakness, or demons. Of course, we no longer live in such an age, yet some still do. Science tells us that mental disorders are, in fact, physical, just like other maladies. The only difference is that mental disorders affect the brain. Depression, for example, can be caused by a simple chemical imbalance. And to use depression as an example, even if you escape a bout of depression without seeking help, the odds of recurrence are much higher than if you do seek help. Why go through it over and over again when you could just go to the doctor the first time?

Second, if you have a mental disorder, you are not alone. Sure, you’ve probably heard this before, but this is not just talk meant to be encouraging. In America, 32.4 percent of individuals will struggle with a mental disorder this year. That’s 75 million people, which is greater than the number of people who get the flu every year. Next time you’re in a lecture hall with 100 students, look around you; statistically, thirty have a mental illness. Look at your group of five or six close friends; one or two struggle with a mental disorder. Over the course of their lives, over half (57.4 percent) of all Americans will struggle with a mental disorder. It is more likely that you will suffer from such a disorder at some point than not. Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid affliction, someone you know may not be. And when the time comes that you, your spouse, child, or close friend is plagued by mental illness, should you tell them that self-reliance is the key? Should you tell them that if they just push through it, they’ll come out stronger? If you do, you’ll only be condemning them to worsening health.

Gallez talks a bit about practical tips that helped her, but she also has a different tolerance level for stress than everyone else here. Just like some people never get sick because their bodies are naturally better at coping with bacteria and viruses, others never get stressed because they are able to cope with higher levels of stress. More often than not, it is because these people have already sought help, not because they are somehow “stronger” than you. Whether you find yourself struggling with stress, depression, or something worse, seek help. At the very least, you might learn some helpful ways of coping with stress from a medical professional, and in some cases, you can prevent an even greater problem from seriously damaging your life. It also bears mentioning that the success rates of treating mental disorders are generally high. For example, treatment for bipolar disorder is successful 80 percent of the time and major depression 60 percent of the time. If you want to get better, seeking help is the way to go.

But where should you reach out if you or a friend needs help? MIT provides high-quality mental health resources. One that is utilized by about half of all MIT students during their time at the Institute is Student Support Services, popularly referred to as “S Cubed.” It’s located in Building 5, Room 104. As their website puts it, “whether you are having trouble with academic work for personal or medical reasons, you are considering taking time away from the Institute, or you just don’t know who to talk to, we can help.” They have walk-in hours from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., and you can schedule an appointment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. However, if you suspect that you are struggling with a mental disorder, then seek help at MIT Mental Health and Counseling, located on the third floor of E23 (MIT Medical). Again according to the website: “MIT Mental Health and Counseling Service provides individual counseling and psychotherapy, group counseling, evaluations, consultations, and neuropsychology consults. Their staff consists of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and nurses.” Their walk-in hours are from 2 to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and of course you can always schedule an appointment for another time. Peer Ears and Peer2Peer are two other new groups, run by students, which you can reach out to if you just need someone to listen (for more on these student groups see page 9).

MIT is difficult — no one is denying that. The recent spate of suicides along with Lydia K.’s recent blog post titled “Meltdown” have made it abundantly clear that people are struggling. More than that, it is abundantly clear that, for one reason or another, people aren’t seeking help. The stigma surrounding mental disorders is unfounded, and we need to work as a community to beat it back. The way to do that is not to encourage people to isolate themselves and look within for strength because when they don’t find it, they’re going to think they’re weak. And no one finds it. They don’t find it not because they’re weak, but rather because it has nothing to do with strength. Mental illnesses are diseases that require medical treatment, whether that be behavioral or cognitive therapy, or medication. In some ways, mental health is like the issue of climate change in America; all the time and money we’re wasting as a country debating whether or not it’s happening could be put towards finding a solution. Similarly, the sooner we can eliminate the stigma and the blatantly incorrect, unfounded claim that self-reliance is all that is necessary, the sooner we can find better ways to help our community.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

For once...I agree with Ryan Normandin on something.

Frank Blankenship about 11 years ago

Bio-medical model propaganda is bio-medical model propaganda, and you, sir, are generating bio-medical model propaganda. There are many more than one way of perceiving and dealing with human stress. I suggest you give more credence to a few of those other ways.

Frank Andreae about 11 years ago

There is much right in this article and much wrong. It's disappointing that so many tags are used that reinforce the stigma. But, I understand the writer's intent having made the same mistakes myself. We are humans, clients, but not patients, disordered or ill when struggling with thinking.