Fighting the Stigma

we must let go of the stigma that too many associate with mental health struggles and instead help others pull through.

By Kelsey Braun

Army Veteran Shawn Jones has seen and experienced so much of the stigma against mental health crises that he entered the field of Psychology himself to fight the stigma within the VA and beyond.


Ryan Dancho didn’t handle his diagnosis as schizo-affective very well but seven years later, he's learning he can rid himself of the stigma of mental illness through proper use of his medication.


And then there is Mara Van Thiel who said after overcoming the stigmas and seeking help, she has regained her mental health and credits therapy as being “the best thing in the world.”


For many suffering from the plague of mental illness, long-standing stigma against it has for years caused folks to fear facing it, but as more and more people struggle with the maladies, confronting stigma is sometimes as important as treatment.


“If you’re dealing with mental health in any way - you’ve been blue for a couple days, you can’t get out of bed, I want to hurt myself or somebody else - you need to seek out help.  You have to talk to somebody.  You can’t keep it in.  Keeping it in is what is hurting all of us,” says Jones.


The National College Health Association conducts a survey each Fall and Spring term called the National College Health Assessment.  One focus of the study revolves heavily around mental health struggles and how they affect a student’s academic performance and well-being.

These numbers were taken from the Spring assessments from 2012 to 2019.

-anxiety     -depression

Starting in 2012, the study shows that the number of students claiming that mental health struggles have had a negative impact on their academic performance has been on the rise.

Jones comes from a family with a long armed service history.  He has traced his family history back to the times of the Civil War, learning that members of his family have served in every war since.  He himself served in the army from 2001-2012.  


In 2010, while serving in Afghanistan, Jones was in a series of explosions.  “I got blown up twice in two days and I suffered a traumatic brain injury.  From that, I got the PTSD.”


Jones wasn’t the only one in the explosion.  “My platoon sergeant was killed as a result of the second explosion and my lieutenant lost his leg.  In the battle, I was the next highest ranking, so I became the person in charge.”


 As Staff Sergeant, Jones was approached by his soldiers who told him that something was off.


“My soldiers came to me like ‘hey, something is wrong.  We’re having conversations that you don’t remember.  That’s not like you,’” he says.


He was sent to Naval Medical Base in San Diego.  He had suffered a traumatic brain injury and developed PTSD.  “I spent three and a half months there while they tried to fix what was wrong.  They just couldn’t do it,” Jones says.

“I’ve heard more than once ‘what, they think they run the world, think everything is about them?’  This is the VA!  Your sole mission is me.”

- Shawn Jones, veteran

Due to Jones’ experience in the Army, he plans to focus his Psychology education on the mental health struggles of those in the armed service and law enforcement.


“There are so many of us in law enforcement and the military that are suffering really bad because they’re afraid to say something, because they’re afraid of the stigma that goes with it,” he says.


“We become untrustworthy, we become unreliable,” he says.  “Now, they look at me like I’m not reliable only because I experienced something and I’m having a problem dealing with it.”


Through the VA, Jones sees a therapist and a psychologist.  He has learned that talking about it is key to dealing with all that he and others have experienced.  He has also seen firsthand the consequences of not talking about it.  


“I worked with a Vietnam vet when I was in Iraq in 2003-2004.  Every night, he woke up screaming.  Every night.  He’d kick over his bunk, throw stuff.  He’d throw punches, and we’d have to dive the punches, grab him and calm him down.  This happened every night because he never talked about what he saw in Vietnam,” he says.


Unfortunately, Jones has also seen stigma at the VA firsthand.  “I’ve heard more than once ‘what, they think they run the world, think everything is about them?’  This is the VA!  Your sole mission is me - not me personally, me as a veteran.  They just don’t see how they impact us with their comments, with their discrimination, with the stigma that comes with it.”


He has since made it his mission to fight this stigma.  Jones is tackling Point Park’s Psychology program and plans to get a job at the VA after graduation.  “The only way it’s going to change is people like me to step up and say ‘okay, I’m going to get my degree.  I’m going to make a difference.  I’m going to get a job there and start changing it,’” he says.


Dancho has schizo-affective disorder.  He says, “That’s kind of a blessing in the name because no one knows what that is, so I get the chance to explain to people what it is.  It’s a combination of bipolar and a little bit of schizophrenia.  Worse than bipolar, not quite as bad as schizophrenia.” 


He sees the stigma against mental illness in two different ways; a self stigma and an external stigma, what everyone else thinks.


“The self stigma is like the shame you feel for yourself over having a mental illness.  I think, once you get diagnosed, a lot of people go through that.  It’s like, for a while, all you are is that diagnosis.  Like, you’re just schizo-affective or bipolar or a crazy person or a mentally ill person,” he says.  


Dancho had a hard time dealing with that self stigma.  He struggled to adjust to new medications and his academics took a hit, too.  He says, “personally, when I got diagnosed, it destroyed me.  It wiped me out for about five years.  I was in school at the time at Penn State.  I would take a semester off, start a new medication, try to cope, and then I’d go back to school and I’d go off my meds, then it was back home.”


After repeating this pattern for two years, Dancho dropped out of school altogether.  “Basically, I had to hit a rock bottom.  I had an experience that was so bad, I knew I just had to take my meds.  After that, it all turned around.”


“Then, after some time, there’s some acceptance, some self-acceptance, some self-love, you stop becoming just the mentally ill person and you become a person who has a mental illness.  You’re a person first,” he says.


The stigma may have been Dancho’s biggest roadblock on his path to proper treatment.  Knowing that not taking his medications properly led to no good, he finally properly stuck to his treatment and says he personally likes the medication.  He credits his treatment through medication for saving his life.


He says, “I’ve been stable for about seven years now.  I got diagnosed when I was 21.  It was a little iffy back then because I was on and off the meds, breakdown to breakdown.  But I got myself together and I’m doing good now.”


He continues, “My choice is I have to take the meds because, literally, I can’t survive without the meds.  I would either be a homeless person or a suicide victim if I weren’t medicated.”


Dealing with the external stigma, Dancho has learned that some people are understanding, some people aren’t, and that you can change someone’s mind by letting them get to know you and your story.  


He says, “I think a lot of that is - the people who aren’t [understanding], it’s based on ignorance.  It’s something they don't know about or they heard a story about somebody who is bipolar or something and they had a really hard time.  Then they take that and apply that to everyone else they meet that has a mental illness.”


Van Thiel has been struggling with her mental health since she was in 7th grade.  She has fought with depression, anxiety, bulimia and self-harm.  She has struggled to be open about it, especially with those that she is close with.  She had a fear of being judged.


“A lot of people in my life looked at me as someone who can give advice and that they can lean on, so for me to say ‘I’m not doing okay,’ it kind of scared me because it felt like they wouldn’t want me to be there for them anymore,” she says.


Despite her fear, her struggle got to the point that she knew she needed to get help.  She says, “When I started self-harming, that’s when it was like ‘this isn’t okay, something needs to change.’  I ended up telling my grandmother who told my mom, and then eventually, I did go into therapy.”


Van Thiel didn’t have a great start with therapy.  She admits that she initially did not stick to it like she should have.  She says, “When I got better, I stopped, and that's the biggest mistake you could ever make.” 


“Just because you’re coping with things doesn’t mean you know how to handle everything that you’re experiencing or will experience,” she says.


She has been in therapy consistently since her 11th grade year and calls therapy “the best thing in the world.”  


Van Thiel says, “It helped me realize a lot of issues that I didn’t want to admit to myself.  I didn't really see them as issues even though they really were - it just kind of felt like my life.  Then, being able to talk to someone and someone say ‘that’s not the way you have to be.  You can be comfortable and happy and content.’”

According to the World Health Organization, “one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives,” but nearly two-thirds of them won’t seek help.  Mental health unfortunately comes with unfair stigmas that can prevent people from getting the help they need.  Work needs to be done to fight this stigma, and while more people are speaking up, greater change is possible.


Kurt Kumler, Ph.D, Director of Point Park’s University Counseling Center defines stigma as “a set of beliefs that are negatively tilting toward assumptions about mental illness and folks who experience mental illness.”


The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine attest to this in the book Ending Discrimination Against People With Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders: The Evidence for Stigma Change.  


The book says, “Americans are more likely to believe in the dangerousness of people with mental illness than are citizens of other developed, industrialized nations.  In a recent national survey, four in ten Americans believed that children and adolescents with depression were likely to be violent, a finding that may be related to media coverage of school shooting incidents.  Stereotypes of violence and unpredictability are associated with higher levels of public stigma toward people with mental illness.”


Mental illness has been stigmatized in the media.  Viewers witness extreme relationships between mental illness and criminality.  This helps fuel the topic of gun control.  Time Magazine says “misleading statements about mental health and violence have very real consequences.  They contribute toward psychiatric patients, which, in turn, lead to fewer people seeking the treatment they need.”


There have been so many examples of this, especially in the media’s coverage of school shootings.  In the year 1999, there was the Columbine shooting.  On the surface, the incident looked like two bullied kids getting their revenge, but psychoanalysis proved there were much deeper issues at play in regards to the mental health of the two shooters.


In more recent years, we witnessed the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, and the Parkland shooting in 2018.  All of these have not only resulted in some of the worst mass shootings in American history, but have done such damage in linking the mentally ill to violence.


In an article titled ‘The Media’s Impact on Public Perceptions of Mental Illness,’ Kismet Baum writes, “For better or worse, the media shapes our ideas and ways in which we understand those around us.  For those suffering from mental illnesses, the implications of the often negative and inaccurate portrayals of mental health issues are significant.  Inaccurate information in the media about mental illness, even if the portrayal of an individual is positive, results in misunderstandings that can have considerable and very real consequences.” 


Mass media indirectly influences the public to outcast mental illness sufferers, to push them to the outskirts society or banish them altogether, labelling them as “others,” as explained by Naveed Saleh MD MS, writing for VeryWell Mind:


“In the aftermath of an unconscionable act of random violence, many people are inclined to label the perpetrator ‘crazy.’ Although the criminal may have a mental illness, automatically assigning the label ‘crazy’ does a great disservice to people who live with mental illness every day.”


The article continues, “Media accounts tend to focus on the individual with mental illness rather than framing mental illness as a societal issue.  Consequently, media consumers are more likely to blame an individual for the illness.”


Another problem is the romanticization of mental illness.  The definition of this is to ‘deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion, make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is.’ 

The internet is full of images that glamorize scars from self-mutilation and idolize the thinness that results from eating disorders, among other things.  In the age where pretty much everyone is online, this is extremely harmful.

The internet is filled with pages that glorify mental illness.  A simple Google search yields results of “thinspiration,” portraying sickly, skinny bodies as ideal.  There are pictures of self-harm scars that are made out to be beautiful.  There are images hailing suicide and the void of death as a path to peace.


Instead of making mental illness out as something that should be dwelled in, there needs to be encouragement to get those suffering from mental illness on the path to healing.


Jones describes this dwelling in mental health issues as “demons.”  He says, “It’s why people commit suicide.  It’s why people go on shooting rampages.  It’s why people will turn to drugs and alcohol.  It’s because they’re trying to keep all of those demons inside and it burns them up.  Getting them out is a way to help, however you can do that in a healthy way.”


Dancho says, “Just because you have a bad diagnosis and your friends think you’re going to be screwed up for life, that’s not true.  You can bounce back.”


Van Thiel says, “One [quote] that I’ve carried with me for the longest time is ‘when all is well, you will look back on this time in your life and be so glad you never gave up.’”


To fight the stigma, we need people to stand up and speak out against it.  We need mental health advocates.


PsychCentral defines mental health advocates as “individuals who tirelessly share their stories in all sorts of ways. They remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles—and there is real, tangible hope and healing. They shatter stereotypes and myths about mental illness, helping the public see that people with mental illness are just people.”


There are examples of celebrities and public figures fighting against the stigma and sharing their own stories of struggling with mental health.  Entertainment news tends to make these people out as heroes for speaking up and overcoming.


But what’s more important are those close to us, those real to us, those who are most relatable, speaking up about the struggles that they’ve gone through as they’ve walked right beside us.  Those like the people who spoke up against the stigma for this article to encourage anyone who may read this to get help, and those who encouraged them just the same.  


You too can stand up, speak out and fight the stigma.


The following is an infographic further illustrating data from the National College Health Association's assessments mentioned above.


Struggling with your mental health?  Here are some places to reach out for help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line

Text "HELLO" to 741741

Veterans Crisis Line

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1

or send a text to 838255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association's National Helpline

1-800-662-HELP (4357)

National Alliance of Mental Health or check out this link.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

See their treatment resources here.

Kelsey Braun is a Senior at Point Park University's School of Communications and has been dealing with an anxiety disorder and depression since 2008.


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