File this under “lack of sensitivity.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released a video this morning detailing what he gave up for Lent, the Christian season around Easter where people sacrifice certain luxuries from their lives as a form of penitence for 40 days. His rather obtuse choice this year? Anxiety.
“I used to give up beer, or ice cream, or pop,” he said in the video. “But I’ve given up so many things over the years, food-wise, that I’ve decided to switch my Lenten vows to character deficiencies or problems I’ve had.”
Here’s a wakeup call to Ryan and anyone else who still thinks so narrow-mindedly: Anxiety is not a “character deficiency.”
Approximately 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, which can include debilitating symptoms, like headaches, ulcers and respiratory problems. Not to mention it also leads to poor sleep quality and changes in the brain.
It’s important to note that Ryan didn’t miss the mark entirely. Managing your worries is crucial to a healthy mind and body. However, his delivery was oversimplified and potentially stigmatizing. There’s a huge difference between stress and anxiety. Ryan was likely referring to the everyday stressors that most people face, but by flinging around the term “anxiety,” his statements take on a whole new meaning — one that further promotes a negative perception around mental health disorders.
The more people conflate mental health terms with colloquialisms, the more alienated individuals with mental illness will feel. Do you know how many of those 40 million Americans wish they could just “give up anxiety” for 40 days? Or even one day? All of them.
Stigma is real. Only 25 percent of people with a mental health issue feel like others are compassionate about their condition. And, really, it’s no surprise given that public figures treat the disorders as a punchline in the public spotlight.
Ryan isn’t the only politician who has said something that perpetuates mental health stigma – presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have also made off-color remarks about mental health.
After the killing of two Virginia journalists, Trump made the call that mass shootings were not “a gun problem” but a “mental problem.” (Which is inaccurate, by the way. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the ones committing them.) And at a Democratic debate earlier this month, Sanders quipped that “when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest a lot in mental health.”
Research shows that the stereotypes surrounding mental illness prevent people from seeking treatment. If we want to solve the systemic mental health problems in our society, we need to start addressing it with care and understanding rather than judgment and shame. A major key to doing that is to stop using phrases associated with mental illness in a casual manner.
In the interim, if Ryan was looking for a few Lent ideas, perhaps he could have tried something that triggers empathy, like volunteering more often. Or giving up excess sugar. Or unplugging from his inbox 30 minutes before bed. They’re less offensive to people with mental illness and they’re still healthy.
Just a suggestion.
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