Stigma refers to the negative view of people who demonstrate a particular quality or who face particular circumstances. In terms of mental health, it is the shame and judgment that surrounds individuals who have a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. It shames people into silence and often prevents people from seeking help. It also leads to rejection, isolation, and low self-esteem. Considering the rising rate of suicide in our society, the conversation around stigma is exceptionally important and timely, and yet, it is often avoided and swept under the rug…because…stigma!
Stigma can be self-directed (“self-stigma”), such as when a person views themselves through a lens of shame and/or otherwise feels as though they are “bad” because of the symptoms they are experiencing. Stigma can also be directed at others (“social stigma”); in this case, it’s the negative perception from an individual, group, or society-at-large that people with certain mental health conditions are “scary,” “violent,” “bad people,” “lazy,” or any other term that denotes shame or misplaced judgment.
Mental health stigma permeates our society like rumors in middle school – except, this time it’s not the “mean clique” doing the harm; instead, it’s each of us who choose to remain uneducated, unaware, and/or who lack compassion and empathy for those affected by mental health conditions. Want to learn more about fighting stigma? Read below for 5 ways you can encourage mental health awareness and, in doing so, actively fight stigma by better supporting those affected by mental illness!
1. Challenge your assumptions and stereotypes. Take a moment to reflect on your views on people with various mental health conditions. Do you avoid the homeless person on the street because you fear they are likely to act violently towards you? Do you judge people with substance abuse issues for their lack of willpower? Do you view people who complete suicide as selfish? Do children with ADHD just lack structure and effective parenting? Is mental health essentially the same as physical health, or does one necessitate more attention than the other? Is mental health completely within our control or are we helplessly affected by the whims of our emotions and belief systems?
Our views on mental health are a direct reflection of our education, values, and experiences. You may have had a variety of responses to the questions listed above. Regardless of your answers, ask yourself, where did those ideas come from? Are they facts? What results might these assumptions have on the way you conceptualize mental health and the ways in which you respond to your own and others’ mental health concerns?
Keep in mind that the confirmation bias loves to step in to help keep us stuck in our old ways – we look for evidence to support our assumptions and we tend to disregard evidence that runs contrary to what we already believe. The solution is to seek disconfirming evidence; that is, we need to deliberately look for ideas, insights, and reliable sources of information that what we believe might NOT be the case (at least, not for everyone). Not sure where to look? Check out the organizations listed in suggestion #5 to get started!
2. Watch your language – words matter! As a society, we tend to use mental health terms in highly stigmatizing ways. Consider the differences between referring to someone as an “autistic kid” rather than a “kid with autism” and what impact that might have for that child, their family, and other people who are personally affected by autism. Would you want to be labeled as your diagnosis? Does it sound right when you replace it with a physical health condition, such as “diabetes lady” or “cancer guy?” Probably not! You’re a lot more than a diagnosis, and so are the millions of other people who may have mental health conditions. Don’t reduce them to just their diagnosis!
On a similar note, refrain from referring to idiosyncrasies and personal attributes with diagnostic labels that you do not meet criteria for. You are not “OCD” because you prefer a clean workspace; your neighbor isn’t “bipolar” because she’s moody; your ex-boyfriend isn’t “schizo” because he acted erratically when he was drunk. Not only are these diagnoses used incorrectly, they are also used in a way that is incredibly demeaning and minimizing to those who actually experience the full depth and range of symptoms associated with these disorders.
3. Talk openly about mental health. This one is difficult for many people and, admittedly, takes a bit of courage to begin putting into action. Of course, some people are quite comfortable discussing their personal experiences and socially taboo topics; however, the majority tend not to be. Talking openly about mental health may involve sharing your personal story with a mental health condition or treatment approach or it may involve reaching out to someone who may be experiencing mental health issues and offering them a safe place to talk.
Being open about your experiences helps to reduce the taboo surrounding the topic and is one of the best ways to fight self-stigma. Through your actions, you are demonstrating that it’s ok to share about mental health concerns, which may allow others to feel more comfortable sharing their own. It may also help to shift people’s perceptions and stereotypes surrounding mental illness, which helps to minimize social stigma as well!
Communicating effectively with an individual who has mental health concerns involves a great deal of empathy and active listening skills. Try to refrain from comparing your experience with theirs or to jump in and give advice. If you feel that a recommendation is warranted, consider offering to help them locate appropriate mental health services, such as therapy or a weekly support group. If you are concerned that they may be a risk to themselves or someone else, you might provide support by offering to help them access a suicide hotline or local emergency room.
4. Choose respect and be kind (always). There is a pervasive underlying belief that we should somehow only respect those who are similar to us. In fact, many people feel threatened by others who differ from them in certain ways, especially when it comes to mental health. Ignorance is the driving force in this insidious attitude and is best remedied with the golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated). Everyone is different and is entitled to those differences. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing their best, just as you would hope they’d do for you. At the end of the day, you don’t have to understand someone in order to be respectful and kind. This suggestion is short and sweet, because really, it’s that simple!