Mental illness is not like a broken arm

Brittany Hoell

Mental illness is exactly what it says it is: an illness. Yet too often, others openly trivialize people suffering from these illness. The stigma that exists for individuals suffering from mental illness is often one of the worst aspects of having these diseases.

In fact, according to the United States surgeon general, stigma is the biggest barrier to mental health care. There are many reasons for this, but a huge factor is that stigma is not always intentional. Well-meaning friends can often be the worst offenders.

“I don’t understand why you’re ashamed that you have [insert mental illness here]. I mean, if you had a broken arm, you wouldn’t be ashamed of it. It’s the same thing.”

People often make comments like this in an attempt to show friends that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and they’re correct—there is nothing to be ashamed of if you struggle with mental illness. However, mental illness is not like having a broken arm. They are not the same thing by any means, and the similarities between the two start and end with not having to be ashamed.

First, breaking an arm—as with the majority of physical injuries—is short-term and typically easy to fix. The pain lasts for maybe a month or two, and the doctors are able to fix the problem with very little fuss. They reset the bones, put a cast on and tell you to take it easy for a while.

Unfortunately, mental illness is often not short-term and can be quite tricky to treat. Many mental illnesses last months or years and treatments are not guaranteed to work. Those trying to get help will often have to try different forms of therapy and medications before they figure out what works best for them.

When you look at someone with a broken arm, you can clearly see that they are hurt. You see their cast, and you know that they have gone through some sort of pain. Maybe you offer to help them carry their books. Maybe you go out of your way to make their life easier. Mental illness is different because it is usually invisible to the eye.

However, mental illness is not like having a broken arm. They are not the same thing by any means, and the similarities between the two start and end with not having to be ashamed.

Unless someone has told you that they are struggling, you typically have no idea. While the person with the broken arm is having people treat them with sympathy and kindness, the person with the mental illness is often not. They don’t get the societal benefits that accompany physical injury, yet they are expected to live life with mentality of a person suffering from physical injuries.

A majority of physical injuries, such as broken arms, have never been stigmatized. Society hasn’t struggled for years to accept and understand broken arms. People with broken arms haven’t been referred to with vulgar, ignorant terms. No one is ashamed to admit they have a broken arm because at no point in our history have we been taught to fear or hide broken arms.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about mental illness. History is full of discrimination and fear directed toward mental illness. Insults such as “crazy” and “insane” are tossed around with little regard for the implications of the words. Mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, are jokingly diagnosed to explain a friend’s mood.

It is wrong that there is a stigma attached to mental illness, and it is something that we as a society need to actively work to change. We need to be aware of the flaws in our society and be understanding when someone with a mental illness asks for confidentiality or discretion.

Anyone can live with a broken arm, but those living with mental illnesses are some of the strongest, bravest and most incredible people. Those living with mental illnesses understand that there are no quick fixes—there are no casts for the brain.

Instead of comparing their personal struggle to a trivial physical injury, offer support, acceptance and love. More importantly, take the steps to educate yourself on mental illnesses, so we can spread awareness and one day live in a world where those with mental illnesses are praised for their strength, a world where there is no more stigma attached to mental illness than there is to a broken arm.


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