5 Ways To Fight Mental Health Stigma
Mental Health Stigma is outdated and It’s Time to Smash It
We shouldn’t be proud of it, but we’ve all said it; “The weather is so bipolar.” It’s common language but when we pause to think about the message, it’s offensive and stigmatizing. Bipolar Disorder is a serious and debilitating disease, not an adjective to describe the weather.
Stigma surrounding mental illness isn’t something most of us readily admit to having, yet it’s so woven into the culture of fear around mental health that most of us in fact have internalized stigma toward mental illness. In order to change that, we have to understand what it is, acknowledge myths, and take action.
What is stigma
Stigma is shame or reproach based on an individual characteristic. It is associated with judgment, discrimination, social avoidance and is a chief reason why people do not seek treatment for their mental distress. Some folks with medical disorders are rejected by others even though their illness is no fault of their own.
Structural stigma occurs when institutional policies negatively impact opportunities for people seen as threatening, dangerous, or less deserving of support. We see this in governments, schools, and even the health industry. Internalized stigma is our own absorbed and unquestioned negative beliefs about mental illness, mental health, those with disease, and treatment for such.
We have an overarching public stigma culture created by mass internalized and structural stigma. That means culturally we have general disgrace towards people with mental disorders that can result in prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. This further leads to internalized self-stigma where we shame ourselves. Substantial personal stigma often prevents people from seeking help for mental health issues and further exacerbates their struggles… thus increasing stigma! It’s a viscous self-defeating cycle and harms everyone. Hence, why we gotta smash it!
Mental Health Myths
We perpetuate stigma for many reasons but perhaps the leading perpetrator is our lack of education. Our misunderstandings lend to fear, ignorance, and judgment. Our language and behaviors reflect this, and we continue to actively or unintentionally pass on stigma. Combating mental health myths is crucial.
Myth: Mental Health doesn’t affect me
Fact: Mental health isn’t an “us versus them” issue. We ALL have symptoms of mental illness, just to varying degrees or severity. Mental health isn’t a static issue. It’s dynamic and we all experience emotional distress on the spectrum of mental health. It’s just a matter of degree.
According to MentalHealth.gov mental health problems are actually very common. In 2014, about:
· One in five American adults experienced a mental health issue
· One in 10 young people experienced a period of major depression
· One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression
Myth: Mental illness is a choice
Fact: Mental illness is a complex mix of biological and environmental factors. We have no choice over our genetic predispositions or vulnerabilities, and we don’t determine if mental illness will manifest. Mental illnesses such as Depression, Bulimia Nervosa, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are no more a choice than physical illnesses such as arthritis or cancer.
Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: According to MentalHealth.gov “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don't even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.”
5 ways to fight stigma
Stigma can be fought but it will take individual change, structural change, and cultural overhaul! Here are 5 ways to take it on.
a. New York and Virginia are the first two states to adopt mental health education into the school system. The New York law says that mental health "is an integral part of our overall health and should be an integral part of health education in New York schools."
b. Until this is the international standard, educational efforts to combat stigma range from distributing flyers and brochures containing factual information about mental disorder to semester-long courses regarding the truth about mental disorder. We are seeing more people share education on social media, blogs, and online news outlets. Get to studying!
2. Promoting personal contact
a. Promoting personal contact involves increased contact with someone with a mental disorder to dispel myths and stereotypes. 1 in 5 Americans has mental illness and it’s time to change the social avoidance that is a consequence of stigma. What if we treated folks dealing with mental illness with the same compassion as folks dealing with physical illness? What if we visited them in the hospital, took them food, wrote cards, or simply offered empathy, compassion, and showed we cared? We all know someone dealing with mental health symptoms, even if we don’t know it yet. Validation is the healing balm we all need when it comes to mental illness, not shame and contempt.
3. Change your language
a. Make an effort to stop using stigmatizing language. “Crazy, schizo, insane, unstable, psycho, bipolar” or other diseases asadjectives is insulting and inappropriate. Saying “they’re so anorexic” is stigmatizing, you cannot look at someone and diagnose anorexia (mental illness with the highest mortality rate btw). Watch out for sayings like therapy is weak, emotions are weak, or saying medication is bad. They’re all stigmatizing statements and thoughts that may minimize disease and increase stereotyping. Remember, “They need therapy” isn’t an insult, but it IS an indicator of your internalized stigma. In case you haven’t heard, therapy is cool.
4. Talk openly
a. This may be the biggest change required from all of us. If we want a real cultural revolution, we have to take on this core flawed belief: emotions are weak and we shouldn’t ask for help. As long as we subscribe to this notion, we will be fighting an uphill battle. We all need to drop this unrealistic robotic expectation that we can be perfect, have no uncomfortable emotions, and should never need anything from anyone. Remember, we all have emotional distress and experience mental illness to varying degrees. It’s time to talk about emotional pain and the impact it has in our lives. It’s time to talk about therapy and getting help. It’s time to talk about medication and openly fighting against the stigma around mental health medication. It’s time to talk about our struggles and our victories over them. We need to foster hope in recovery and support for those in the trenches.
5. Vote for mental health
a. It is important we all vote with mental health in mind. Stigma makes it harder for those in mental health and addiction recovery communities to make their voices heard. MentalHealthAmerica.net has a toolkit to help educate us on voting for mental health that you can download here. You can join their advocacy network and receive updates on important issues so you can vote for changes.
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Tiffany Roe is a clinical mental health counselor, founder and CEO of Mindful Counseling in Orem, Utah, and she’s out to change the mental health game.