One of the things I am most passionate about when it comes to mental health is trying to beat the stigma surrounding it. I was asked a very interesting question yesterday: What does that look like? What is a stigma free world?
The best answer I have for that very valid question is this: We treat and view physical and mental illness in the same light. And we don’t view mental illness as being anything other than what it is: A serious, dehabilitating and potentially deadly category of diseases which require time, resources and care to heal.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society where that is currently the case. We know that nearly one out of five American adults have some sort of mental illness, but only 30-40% seek treatment. Stigma continues to play a role in this disconnect and in people’s assumptions of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.
So, rather than asking a broader question about what we can do, as a society, let me put the question to you in a more direct, personal terms: What can you do to help end mental health stigma?
Here are five suggestions. They are all relatively simple. You may have thought about them already. But I think it’s important that all of us realize we have a role to play in terms of ending mental health stigma.
1) You have to talk about it: One of the most difficult things which people can do in terms of mental health is also one of the simplest: You have to talk about it. If you are depressed, say it. If you are anxious, say it. According to research, anti-stigma campaigns which are most effective are those which feature real, “normal,” identifiable people discussing their mental illness. This means that the most effective person to attack mental health stigma is…well, you.
2) Encourage people to seek help: If you are one of the lucky ones who has avoided mental illness, that’s wonderful. You still have an important role to play: If someone you know is in pain and needs help, encourage them to get it. Be supportive and non-judgmental, but help them get the help that they need and deserve.
3) Encourage an equal perspective between physical & mental illness: I might be off here, but I believe ending stigma means that we take mental illness the same way we take physical illness. That, I believe, is important, because most people aren’t going to look at a broken arm and think, “Gee, I can just tough it out!” When someone gets physically sick, we usually don’t think twice about helping them get the help they need. I think this is a good model for breaking mental health stigma.
4) Watch your language: Here’s one that I must confess I sometimes violate, and I need to stop. Expressions like, “I’m crazy” or “You’re nuts” don’t help anything. All that does is reinforce a negative stigma about mental health. There has been an awesome campaign in the past couple of decades to eliminate use of the word “retard” as a negative description, and it’s fantastic. The campaign operates on the principle that we are a better society if we are more inclusive. This has to extend to how we discuss mental health as well.
5) Don’t just talk about failures and pain – talk about successes and joy. I think part of the problem with the way we discuss mental health is we discuss it. We talk about failures, about challenges, about struggles. When you discuss mental health, don’t just concentrate on the negatives. Talk about joys and victories. Talk about beating struggles, about thriving. Mental illness can, of course, be extraordinarily painful, but that makes our victories sweeter. Talk about thriving, not just the pain.
As always, I’d love to hear from you! Anything you want to add? Let us know in the comments below!
My name is Mike Schlossberg; I’m 35, married, with two wonderful kids. I am a Pennsylvania State Representative, and I also suffer from a major depressive disorder and a generalized anxiety disorder. With medication and therapy, I’ve treated my disease, and I’ve been outspoken about the need to treat mental illness better. That's what I'm blogging about now.
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