Mental Illness and the “Special Snowflake”: Damaging Stereotypes and the Long Road Ahead

Is mental health finally on the road to achieving equality with physical health? Certainly that’s what the Prime Minister expressed that she wanted to achieve in her recent speech on the subject – claiming that she wanted to end the stigma attached to having mental health disorders, and detailing a number of measures which she believed would help achieve this.

It may be debatable how committed Mrs May is to the cause – one publication worked out the new monetary investment to be 25p per taxpayer and made joking suggestions as to how one might improve one’s mental health with such an amount – but the key point from it all is this: mental illness attracts stigma, and it is being acknowledged even by the government. 

The extent of this stigma is wide-reaching, and can affect sufferers in a multitude of ways: from feeling unable to talk about their conditions to being unable to access treatment.


Mental Health Statistics

Mental health issues are not rare: in any year, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental illness. Not only this, but having a mental health problem in itself is not the only indicator of stigma. A person’s place in society can suggest additional hostilities and barriers.

Gender stereotypes contribute, for instance. There is more stigma attached to those who seek help for a problem ‘stereotypical’ of their gender: so, emotional problems in women, and alcohol abuse in men. Moreover, and more worryingly, gender stereotypes also mean that doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women , even when men show comparable symptoms, and are more likely to offer mood-altering drugs to women. Possibly, this could partially account for the fact that male suicide rates are three times as high as female suicide rates in the UK. However, there are areas in which female patients are under-diagnosed significantly too, autism perhaps being the most notable, having been seen historically as an exclusively male disease.

More generally, being a member of a minority ethnic group significantly increases the chance of discrimination due to mental health. Overall rates of experienced stigma were twice as high for minorities as for white sufferers, and for the majority group “in all areas, discrimination was experienced by a noticeably lower percentage compared to Black and Minority Ethnic communities”.

Although there may be particular problem areas dependent on gender or race, perhaps we are still at a stage where the view has to be much broader. Mental health is under-diagnosed generally. The majority of people who experience psychological issues are not being treated. The NHS ‘Healthy London Partnership’ estimates that only a quarter of people with mental health problems are being treated. The key problem is that mental health is so stigmatised that no one seems to mind that hardly anyone can get the help they need.


“Special Snowflakes” and Invalidation

“Generation Snowflake” is an insult often thrown at millennials, and although people from all age groups suffer from mental health issues, this particular phrase connotes mental illness in a way that could affect everyone.

Admittedly some who use the phrase don’t directly attack mental health sufferers, but the implication is still there, particularly in the careless use of language. Generation Snowflake is “SO DAMN DELICATE” and will “probably have a psychological breakdown the second someone tells them they’re not as perfect as they think they are”. Amazingly, in an edit designed to defend themselves, the author expresses the opinion that some “fall back on mental illness or emotional turmoil as an excuse and crutch, or a bargain for special treatment”. Everything about the post exudes contempt at those less able to cope than the author, it invalidates emotional issues completely, and, if it was a viewpoint that a person considering seeking help came into contact with, could put them off, for fear of meeting similar derision from doctors, friends and family. It’s obviously not designed to hurt those with genuine ailments, but that’s where the problem lies: the snowflake metaphor cannot differentiate between mental illness and being ‘delicate’ and oversensitive, and nor does it have the nuance to recognise that both of those things could be genuine symptoms of a problem. It preserves only the very mentally strongest from contempt.

A personal blog is one thing, but it is more disconcerting to see similar views presented, more coherently, in a national publication. Once again, mental illness is blurred with a general diagnosis of certain people being a bit pathetic. The Spectator blames millennials’ ‘hypersensitivity’ on the over-protection of parents and bullying campaigns acknowledging the hurtfulness of words. In fact, the Spectator’s view is perhaps more worrying, because it contains more mixed messages. The blog above at least proclaims its intent outright: to deride the ‘softness’ of a generation it despairs of. The Spectator, however, tries to appear more sensitive: validating mental health problems in part, and yet painting them as if they are a sign of a flaw in character, albeit that flaw not being the person’s fault.

For example, the columnist declares: “I don’t doubt the sincerity of those students reporting severe symptoms of depression” and yet in the same paragraph states “we are encouraging a whole generation to perceive itself as mentally ill”, and goes on to (incredulously) announce that, at the prospect of exams, “they really are overstressed and unable to cope”. She paints this ‘severe depression’ as, simultaneously, a result of mollycoddling, not real in the sense that it is only perceived, and a symptom of being mentally weaker than the generations before, who could cope with exams. It is hardly a cocktail that would encourage someone to recognise their symptoms as a ‘real’ problem and contact a doctor. Rather, it seems more likely to encourage an individual to attempt to ignore any problem and beat themselves up about feeling the way they do.

Although this abuse is aimed at millennials, the ‘special snowflake’ stereotype will harm far more people than today’s twenty-somethings. A big part of the stereotype is tied in with mental health, as are many of the mocked terms that accompany it: “triggered” and “safe spaces” to name the most frequently parodied. It is not a desirable stereotype, and it would be hardly surprising if an older person did not wish to be associated with the group, or felt that they would be tarnished with the same brush if they were so weak as to seek help.

It is such a horrible, patronising term, which serves only, presumably, to make a few, bitter people feel better about their supposed mental resilience.


Real-Life Experiences

The problem is, is that this stigma and judgement can be incredibly damaging: not just in theory, but in reality. Below are a few thoughts from people with various mental health conditions, on how stigma and the ‘special snowflake’ stereotype have affected them and their relationship with their mental health.

On seeking help and talking to friends:

“It scared me away from looking for help/support because I’d seen the way people reacted to others that had been brave enough to find it. If I spoke out and got help, people would see me as weak or attention seeking or say I just wasn’t trying hard enough to be happy or help myself – asking for help just means you’re not trying. If you’re not suicidal, then you haven’t got an issue – You’re just a person who enjoys wallowing in self pity and being miserable. The stigma made me hold it all in and deny it until it grew into something that could no longer be hidden. I don’t think it would have had such a big effect if I hadn’t been taught to see it as an anomaly and something that shouldn’t be talked about or acknowledged.” – Anon.

Mental health, disability & isolation:

“The stigma is awful because despite being legally disabled people don’t take something they can’t see seriously. There’s an assumption that I must be overreacting. The anxiety around having to discuss ‘what do you do’ when not working has stopped me going out to social events before, furthering my isolation. No one takes note that unemployed and disabled are different. 
And it sucks not being able to talk about it like anything else y’know? Like if I talk about my asthma, everyone’s chill, but I know if I mention mental health I’m gonna get an awkward silence that makes me feel even worse. 
The snowflake thing … it’s a shitty way of invalidating often genuine ailments. People now won’t say if they have requirements because they don’t want to get a load of BS about being a special snowflake. And that makes me so frustrated, because invalidating your conversational partner’s conditions does nothing in getting a point across. It’s just bullying 2.0.” – Charlie, Oxford.

Fear of discrimination from within:

“I feel like both depression and social anxiety are fairly well recognised mental disorders but if anything I feel more worried that other sufferers would not accept me because I don’t have them bad enough, rather than other people judging me. What I feel more worried about is admitting that I turn to alcohol as a way to combat these because that is still something of a taboo subject.” – Anon.

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