10 Concrete Ways We Can Help to Vanquish Mental Health Stigma

mental health stigma


Like a broken arm, mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. We can all take real steps – with very little effort – to make mental and physical health equal in society’s eyes.

As much as we’d like to think mental health stigma is no longer an issue, the problem is very much alive and well. Even in 2017, the stigma surrounding mental health disorders means those who are affected have fewer opportunities for work and have trouble finding housing. They encounter bullying, physical violence, and harassment. Furthermore, the fear of judgment, rejection, or misunderstanding often leaves them unwilling to talk about their mental health or seek help or treatment.

This has to stop.

It’s time for each and every one of us to endeavour to destroy the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s not even a difficult undertaking. With nothing more than a renewed mindset and a modest effort, together we can start a ripple of change that will eventually become a wave. Let’s look at ten ways we can start crushing mental health stigma:

Know That Mental Illness Is About More Than Willpower

If we were to tell someone with a terminal illness to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get over it,” we’d likely find ourselves in hot water. The same applies to mental illness. Many people mistakenly believe that mental illness can be overcome with a good dose of willpower. Nothing is further from the truth. If you wouldn’t expect a broken arm to spontaneously mend itself just by wanting it to, you shouldn’t expect someone to simply “shake off” depression or anxiety. Mental illness is a serious medical condition, and it’s time we started treating it as such.

Be Mindful of Your Language

Off-handedly peppering conversation with words like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “schizo” can be incredibly damaging to those struggling with a mental illness. Such terms can shut a conversation down completely, and leave vulnerable people fearing judgment from those who should be supporting them. It’s relatively easy to use a different go-to word like “wild”.

Using diagnostic terms to describe behaviour – i.e. “she’s so bipolar”- or using them as adjectives i.e. “I have to keep my desk clean, I’m so OCD about it” – both undermines legitimate diagnoses and minimizes the seriousness of these conditions. A tweak in our language means we won’t upset someone who has to fight very hard to keep their illness from taking over their life.

Finally, let’s always remember that people are people, not diagnoses. Instead of saying: “she’s depressed” or “he’s schizophrenic,” we can say “she has depression” or “he has schizophrenia.” Another change we can make is to say, “they have a mental illness” rather than “they are mentally ill.”

This is referred to as “person-first” language and is far more respectful and considerate.

Join a Support Group

Many local and national groups offer programmes and resources for those looking to reduce stigma and educate themselves on mental illness. Joining one (or more) of these groups is a fantastic way to get started making a change! Check the National Alliance for Mental Health (US) or the Time To Change (UK) website for more information!

Encourage Equality Between Physical and Mental Illness

There’s a pretty big disconnect between physical illnesses and mental illnesses in society. People just can’t seem to realize the two are parallel.

Barry Southers, Professor at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, explains:

“For example, look at diabetes — a medical professional can test a person’s blood and determine concretely if a person has the disease or not. But with mental illness, it’s far more complicated — mental illnesses range in severity and symptoms, and some are directly related to physical or chemical changes within the body, while others have only minor physical connections and are more directly affected by behavioral issues. Because of the complicated nature of mental illness, it’s all too easy for people to assume that mentally ill patients are simply making up their ailments.”

When thinking about it yourself, or explaining it to others, a useful way to illustrate the point is this: If we wouldn’t make light of someone having cancer, heart disease, or AIDS, then we shouldn’t make light of mental illnesses either.

Vote for Change

The U.S. in particular has a serious issue with mental health disparity. In fact, 80% of rural communities in America lack access to qualified mental healthcare professionals. Furthermore, a large number of Americans have health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover treatment for their mental illness. This is why it’s incredibly important to vote for and fund politicians who pledge to end both stigma and mental health disparity in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Don’t Equate Mental Ill Health with Violence

Though some people who have mental illnesses may occasionally display unusual behaviours when their illness is severe, they aren’t any more likely to be violent than the general population. The media likes to portray those who suffer from mental illnesses as being violent, but they’re actually 10 times more likely to be the victims of violence. Furthermore, when the majority of people with mental illnesses do become violent, that violence is directed at themselves, manifesting as self-injury or suicide attempts.

Take Care of Yourself

Nurturing our mental health is just as important as nurturing our bodies. We always need to take care of our own mental health. Whether it’s meditation, therapy, or medication, do whatever is necessary to maintain your own mental health.

Normalize Therapy

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is no shame in seeing a therapist. If we’re not embarrassed to see our doctor or dentist, then we shouldn’t be embarrassed to see our therapist. Just as doctors take care of our physical health, therapists take care of our mental health. If we can speak  openly about the benefits of therapy it’s good for everyone, not just those who are dealing with mental illnesses.

Be Kind and Empathetic

You’d be amazed at just how far a little kindness can go. Being an active listener can let someone with a mental illness know you are there for them. When talking with a loved one, here are a few things we can say to get the conversation started:

● I’ve noticed you’ve seemed down lately — is everything ok?
● I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well.
● How can I help?

Just because someone looks or acts OK, it doesn’t mean they are. Anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses can often be hidden behind a happy facade, but the person can still be suffering internally. Regardless of the external behaviour of our loved ones, we need to not rely on their seeming ‘happy’ and continue providing support and reassurance.

Share the Knowledge

Stigma is often born of and sustained by a lack of knowledge and and the spread of misinformation. We can take a little time to educate ourselves and learn more about mental health issues. This is the first step to ending stigma! One we know more, we are better-placed to converse on the topic with friends, family, and co-workers.

Changing the attitudes surrounding mental illness takes time, but repetition is the key. By speaking openly and honestly about mental health problems, we can help others realize that mental health issues are medical issues, and they must be understood and treated. We can keep learning, keep listening, and keep talking. Eventually, we’ll see a positive shift in how people with mental illnesses are treated by society. Due to the hard work of so many courageous souls, that positive shift is already happening.

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