Mental health care and mental illness stigma are unfortunately still a reality. From the media to our friends and family, the way we all as a society talk about and even shame mental illness prevents those who need help from getting it. It’s important that we all take steps to openly talk about mental health in order to reduce stigma. Mental health awareness helps us individually and society at large.
WHERE DOES MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA COME FROM?
Because mental illness is not tangible, quantifiable, or always visible, it means you have to be “mentally insane” or “crazy”, with little or no ability to function, for people to believe that you have mental illness. Not everyone looks the same, behaves the same, or has the same presentation when they have a mental illness, so it’s difficult for others to understand.
There’s an expectation that you have to present a certain way and be clinically diagnosed in order to get professional care or that you are using mental illness as an excuse for being lazy. Common phrases such as, “You’re able to work so you’re obviously fine and not depressed… you’re just lazy and don’t want to get out of bed,” reinforce mental illness stigma. Often people use their own preconceived notions of mental illness to determine what is worthy or not of compassion based on their own criteria they’ve created for you.
WHERE STIGMA EXISTS
Ourselves: Even if you go to therapy, believe in mental health care, and advocate for reducing stigma, it’s important to take note of anything you do or say that contributes to stigma. Do you make fun of yourself when talking about your own mental health? Do you blame extreme or violent behavior on mental illness? The language you use, the way you talk to others about their mental health and your own, can stigmatize mental health.
Family: Often family members don’t understand what you’re going through. They may have outdated beliefs that if you go to therapy, it means you’re “crazy”. When the people in our lives invalidate our emotional and mental pain, “it’s not a big deal,” “you seem fine,” “therapy is only for crazy people,” it minimizes the problem and your suffering. Parents may blame themselves for your mental illness and place that guilt on you, adding to your emotional pain.
Friends/social group: The fear of being judged and thought of as “crazy” often prevents us from opening up to our friends. This fear is legitimate, especially if you’ve heard your friends use derogatory language in the past. You worry that they’ll stop inviting you out because it will ruin their time, that they’re not interested in listening to you, or think something is wrong with you. So when you cancel plans or bail last-minute without explanation, your friends might think that you’re just copping out, lazy, or making excuses. When friends don’t have a full understanding of what’s going on in your life because you haven’t shared, they create their own narrative of what’s going on with you and mental illness that isn’t accurate.
Work: More and more people are understanding the need and value of taking mental health days as sick days. But a lot of places, colleagues, and bosses still don’t understand depending on the field that you’re in. There’s this expectation that you have to appear sick in order to “deserve” time off. If you don’t seem sick, people assume you’re lying. Or with grief and loss, it feels like your boss is putting a time limit on how long you can grieve and for whom you can grieve. There’s an assumption it has to be a direct relative in order for it to impact your mental health and job performance. These prevalent attitudes increase stigma and can jeopardize your mental health.
Media: In news, literature, TV, movies, and social media, the portrayal of mental illness and health care often contributes to mental health stigma. When there is violence in the news, people are often quick to blame it on mental illness. “Throw away” language, or things said in passing, in movies and on TV can have profound effects on how we view the world around us. Derogatory language is so pervasive in the media, it is absorbed by our brains and regurgitated exactly how we heard it. We often say things without thinking about the harm it does to ourselves and others.
Medication: There’s often stigma around taking medication. Many people refuse to take medication for mental illness even if it will help them. People often stop taking their medications because of the stigma associated with fear of others finding out about their diagnosis and being judged as a result. There’s no stigma with blood pressure medication, so why should there be when it comes to treating mental health?
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO REDUCE MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA
- Acknowledge your own mental illness diagnosis and mental health needs. By not getting the care you need, you are contributing to the stigma. It is up to you to acknowledge it and not look at it as a label. Mental illness is not who you are, but what you have. You have bipolar disorder, you are not bipolar. It is not your identity, it’s an illness you have. Just like medical illness, you are not cancer, you have cancer. It’s just a different part of your body – your brain, which is an organ exhibiting an impairment in functioning in this circumstance as with other organs in the body that may require medical attention as well. Empowering yourself is acknowledging your pain and getting help, regardless of the severity and its impact on your daily life.
- Seek professional support to address it. When you obtain mental health care, you are acknowledging that it is beneficial. Everyone can benefit from therapy, and when we seek help, it not only helps you, it shows others that it is a positive thing.
- Be mindful about the language you use regarding yourself. If you make fun of or talk negatively about yourself, it contributes to mental health stigma. Eliminating mental health stigma starts with you. When you say negative things about yourself, it shows others that it’s OK to put yourself down. Modify your language to be more positive and compassionate. Instead of saying, “I hate myself,” “I’m ugly,” or “I’m stupid,” say “I know I have limitations, but I’m working on them,” or “therapy has been helping me overcome my low self-esteem.” Focus on what is good and what you do like about yourself, rather than the negative things. If you shift your language, it may influence others to do the same.
- Take time to sit down and talk to people you trust and tell them what you’re going through. You get to decide how much detail you want to go into. If you don’t speak up, the stigma will never go away. Be open about what you’re going through (when it’s safe to do so). Educate them about the illness and language to use (it’s up to you how in-depth you go depending on the relationship). This can be scary if you’ve never done it before. You might be afraid that the other person won’t understand or think you’re crazy. Ask yourself, “Why am I anxious about bringing this up?” Is it based on past experiences with this person? Have they made comments about mental illness that didn’t sit right with you? Or have you never given them a chance to talk about it? Decide how much or how little you want to share and adjust your boundaries accordingly. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – you can modify how you approach telling them and how much detail you give. Don’t hold back to protect them. The more people are quiet about it, the stronger the stigma becomes. Stigma takes empowerment away. Speaking up about your mental health empowers you.
- Be honest if you need to cancel plans with friends. If you tell them why, they will have more compassion than if they’re left in the dark. It also empowers others to be more honest about their own mental health. When you have mental illness, it can feel like you are the only one who’s dealing with it. But many people live with mental illness, and when you’re honest you might find out that people you know are also struggling! When your friends learn about what you’re going through, it might help them realize they can talk about their own mental health so you can support each other. Communication breaks down the social barrier and creates an organic support system. It normalizes and destigmatizes mental illness beyond you. Your entire social sphere becomes empowered.
- Set boundaries and state your needs. The people in your life will understand, and if they don’t, that’s something to consider, but it’s not your fault. If anyone doesn’t respect your needs and boundaries, you can talk to them about why they don’t, or minimize contact with that person. You can’t control other people’s reactions, but you can do what you need to do to improve your own mental health. As your mental health improves because you set healthy boundaries and prioritize your needs, the people in your life will appreciate the positive changes in you and may look to you as an example of how they can improve their own lives.
- Incorporate wellness into your everyday life. You don’t have to wait for your next therapy appointment to take care of your mental health. Your everyday actions impact your emotional wellness and demonstrate to others how you value your mental health. Putting mental health care and wellness at the forefront of your everyday life is proof that mental health is important; thereby, destigmatizing mental health care.
MENTAL HEALTH CARE HELPS US GET BETTER
There are so many other ways to reduce mental health stigma, such as writing about it publicly, going into the mental health field, or advocating for changes in legislation or policies at work. The point of reducing stigma is to help us all get better. Mental health care is about lifting you up and lifting up society as a whole. When we address and care for our mental health, it empowers us in all aspects of our life. Mental health care isn’t just about fixing problems, it can be preventative and practiced every day.
If you need professional support, I’m here for you. Whether you have a diagnosable mental illness or just want to feel your best, therapy can help you achieve your goals and feel better! I offer online therapy to anyone living in Florida or New York. Contact Dr. Heather Violante today to learn more and to start taking charge of your own emotional wellness to gain self-empowerment and break the stigma.