Stigma: What is it and how can we fight it?

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Living with a mental illness can be challenging, but the stigma that often surrounds it can make the recovery journey even more difficult.  Stigma can create an environment of shame, fear, guilt, and silence, which is unacceptable for those who already carry a heavy burden.

The #CureStigma campaign sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes stigma as this:

“There’s a virus spreading across America. It harms the 1 in 5 Americans affected by mental health conditions. It shames them into silence. It prevents them from seeking help. And in some cases, it takes lives. What virus are we talking about? It’s stigma. Stigma against people with mental health conditions. But there’s good news. Stigma is 100% curable. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote. Your voice can spread the cure.”

We know that one in five adults in the US experiences a mental illness in a given year.  But despite these numbers, only half will seek treatment for their condition.  Why don’t they seek treatment? For many, it is because of the stigma associated with their mental health disorder. Unfortunately, society has stereotyped many people with a mental illness as violent, dangerous, crazy, or unstable, to name a few. Stereotypes, such as these and others, make it difficult for those with a mental illness to get help, find work, maintain long-term relationships, and be socially included.

How do we fight stigma?

Stigma can cause someone with a mental illness to be ashamed for something they have no control over. We all have a responsibility to help end the stigma around mental illness, but how?

First, talk about it. Talking about mental health is never easy, but it can help someone in need to seek treatment. You don’t need any training to take that first step. Talking about mental health should be as easy as talking about your physical health.  When you think someone may need help, trust your gut. Let them know you care about them, followed by observation, and most importantly, normalize mental health by being direct. For example, “I care about you, and I have noticed you seem anxious lately. Do you want to talk about what may be causing it?” Let them know you understand, and it is perfectly fine to have challenges in life.

SF-language-largeSecondly, be conscious of your words. That may seem odd, but have you ever thought about the words that are often used to talk about mental illness?  While we may not realize the effect, the most common words can be the most detrimental. It is important for us not to use labels and negative words, but to also remind others that their language matters. It is important to remember that individuals with a mental illness deserve the same respect as others.  Look at the graphic from NAMI for some examples of labels and respectful language.  

Third, educate yourself. It is hard to understand what someone with a mental illness may be experiencing. It is easy to think they may be exaggerating but living with a mental illness can make everyday life difficult. Educate yourself about the symptoms and warning signs of a mental health disorder. Once you learn more, you will find it easier to support that friend who is more than a little sad and may be dealing with depression. You may even be able to recognize that your loved one is struggling with anxiety, or symptoms of trauma.  The more you know the more you will be empathetic and understanding to those who need support.

Lastly, raise awareness.  Society’s perception of mental illness will not change without help. Tell others that mental illness is real. Find opportunities to share important facts and information. Your positive attitude and willingness to share may be the impetus someone needs to get help. It is important that we relay to those with a mental illness that they are not alone, and help is available.

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