By: Marie Miguel
Mental illness is experienced by one in five adults every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It includes bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, the latter being the leading cause of disability in the world. And yet, one of the biggest challenges we face with mental illness is the stigmatization surrounding it.
As a society, we still have a long way to go in talking about mental health in a healthy and normal way, and this may be for a number of reasons. People who struggle with mental illness may feel great shame, guilt or weakness in talking about their illnesses or seeking help due to narrow portrayals in the media, or a complete absence of it. The lack of mental health education leads to the belief that mental illnesses are “phases,” can be controlled or can easily be overcome if only they tried. On a larger scale, factors like poor access to mental health care can also contribute to widespread stigmatization.
People with mental disorders already carry a lot of pain, and these things can further worsen it. What we need is more people having healthy and accurate conversations about mental illness and speaking up for those who struggle with it. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, here are 5 ways you can fight the stigma surrounding mental illness:
- Educate yourself. Mental illness is prevalent: a study estimated that over 80 percent of people will experience it once in their lifetime. Something so widespread is deserving of our focus and education; the more knowledgeable we are, the more we will be able to help those struggling with mental illness and help dismantle its stigma this month and beyond. You can start by reading articles and fact sheets from trusted sources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Association of Depression and Anxiety. If you are someone with a mental disorder, you can gently express to others how it is for you to be experiencing it.
- Be wary of the language you use. Language surround mental health is important and even small shifts in phrasing can make a big difference in social perception. For example, saying “He is a person with a disability” rather than “He is disabled” is a form of humanizing language that helps people understand that a person is not their illness, according to American Psychiatric Association. Be conscious of the way you use the words “crazy,” “psycho” or “anxious” which can contribute to the stigma. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to kindly educate others around you if their language is problematic and to remind them it matters.
- Show compassion for those with a mental illness. People who have a mental disorder are often in a great deal of pain, even though they may not show it, and one of the kindest things we can do is to show them that they matter and that their feelings are valid. If you have a friend or family member who you know is struggling with a mental illness, show them your support. Gently encourage them to seek help from licensed, professional and supportive therapists that platforms like BetterHelp.com provide. Ask them how they really are often, and take the time to listen to what they have to say without judgment or criticism. Standing with them and validating their experiences is an incredibly life-affirming act, and will help reduce the shame they may feel.
- Speak up on social media. If you see a social media post or advertisement which negatively or inaccurately portrays mental illness, add in your two cents or write to the broadcasting company. Sometimes, people are unaware that they are contributing to the stigma and are willing to learn what it really is like for someone with a mental illness. Says Facebook user Kathy Smith, “If Facebook has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, then I write back and fill them in on my son’s journey with schizoaffective disorder.” This also means supporting organizations which work to break down the barriers in mental illness, such as To Write Love On Her Arms and NAMI.
- Be honest about your own struggles. Perhaps one of the hardest things to do is to fight the stigma within ourselves. Shame, guilt, and fear are all reasons why we may not speak up about our own mental health concerns, and this can lead to further harmful thoughts surrounding it. Being honest with yourself and trusted friends and family, even though it may be very difficult, is one of the most powerful things you can do fight the stigma within yourself and others. Don’t allow yourself to wallow in shame, but make small, positive steps to normalizing your mental illness: acknowledge that it is a real medical condition, take your treatment seriously, and show by example what it means to live a meaningful life, even with a mental disorder.
Our culture and society’s views on mental health has slowly and gradually gotten better, but there is still much to be said and done. With education, persistence and compassion, we can positively change how we approach mental illness and dismantle its stigma entirely.