Step Onstage: How to Break Down Social Stigma (Part 2)

Last time, we covered the basics of Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, the sociological concept that individual-society interactions are like theatrical performances. The individual is the actor and the society is the audience. The individual, like an actor, portrays a certain persona onstsage, where the audience can see them. But backstage, the individual stores his or her inner thoughts and emotions, hidden from the audience’s view.

We established that social stigma harms the individual by “spoiling” their identity. Their onstage persona becomes dragged through the dirt by the audience. Perhaps naturally, most individuals hide their “spoiled” identities by dragging them backstage. It becomes a secret, something to be hushed, something to be hidden.

Driving people behind the curtains can be extremely problematic when we’re talking about mental illness. Unfortunately, mental illnesses have been stigmatized for centuries. As expounded upon in my soon-to-be-revealed policy paper, mental illness suffers from much misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and adolescent depression has suffered a brunt of the attack. For many years, it was believed that because adolescents lacked “sufficiently formed egos” or “brain development,” they could not suffer from the “chemical imbalance[s] at the root of clinical depression.” Not only that, teenagers must also bear the shackles of the  “overly hormonal” and “spoiled” kid archetype. Admitting mental illness or seeking help could be interpreted by many as a manifestation of the largely frowned-upon stereotype.

In addition, there is also stigma against care for mental illness. Studies show that a significant number of people still believe that mental illness is incurable and that care is ineffective. Still more believe that those who suffer from mental illness are at fault for being irresponsible, inactive, or morally flawed–and therefore cannot be improved by mental health care.

So how do we break down this stigma? The first step is to spread word of its existence. Often times, stigma acts like a paper-thin veil. It subtly distorts how people view the world without contorting too much of it, letting it go by mostly unnoticed. So first, we have to lift the veil. We can do that by spreading word of what mental illness really is: a condition, like any physical disease, that needs care and treatment. Mental illness is, in fact, extremely common. Around 20% of adolescents will suffer from mental illness sometime in their youth, and at any time, at least 5% of adolescents are suffering from depressive disorder (DD) or major depressive disorder (MDD). It’s not weird. It’s not abnormal. It’s not alien, and it’s not creepy. It happens.

But before we go on, let’s pause and take a deep breath. As we talk more and more about mental illness, adolescents, policies, and healthcare, we’re going to be using a lot of statistics. But numbers can’t tell the full story. People suffering from mental illness spend every day trying not to end up as “just another statistic.” These students suffering from mental illness–they’re real. They have stories to tell and pictures to paint and poems to write. In fact, that’s a huge part of breaking down stigma–showing people that people with mental illness are people, too. That behind whatever twisted persona they must carry, they are still human backstage.

That being said, I want to share a poem with you. It was written and read by renowed spoken word artist Neil Hilborn at the National Poetry Slam 2013. We’ll discuss it more next week. But for now, pay attention to his story and his message. Pay attention to the emotions that it stirs in your heart. Think about how he presents what mental illness means to him.



See you next Sunday!


Best Wishes,


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