We've all heard the word so now let's explore what stigma means, why is it harmful, and how do we overcome it? The Merriam-Webster defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” To stigmatize someone with a mental health condition is to mislabel and mistreat them with shame and disrespect. In truth, stigma arrives in countless forms such as ridicule, banter, prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and intimidation. Stigmatization against individuals living with a mental health condition occurs as character defamation, through derogatory labels such as psycho, nut job, basket-case, crazy lady, and maniac. Stigmatic behavior, jokes, and insensitive comments such as "the weather is bipolar" "they’re so insane" or "did you forget to take your crazy pills" perpetuate the cycle of stigma and accompany painful feelings of unworthiness. More than an offensive comment, stigma, in particular, is a toxic perception that leads the general public to believe inaccuracies about people living with mental health conditions. To reduce, overcome, and eliminate stigma we first must learn to be comfortable with discussing the subject of mental health.
Why Stigma Surrounds Mental Health
Lack of public awareness surrounds the subject of mental health. People associate mental health with acts of violence, mass shootings, and extreme psychotic behaviors. Society often perceives a person with a mental illness as being ‘dangerous’, ‘a threat to society’, or ‘untrustworthy.’ Incorrect facts and myths portrayed on television, media, and in the news contribute to such misunderstandings. As a result, general society has difficulty correctly identifying mental health disorders and individuals don't know how to deal or interact with people diagnosed with one. More specifically, stigma results in discriminatory behavior and treatment of people with mental illness. Stigma is apparent in the workplace, people's attitudes, at home, in relationships, church, community, media, even in medical settings. People with special conditions are hated against, treated different, excluded or targeted for something they have no choice in having. Imagine being afraid to lose a job, get housing, have meaningful relationships, feel protected, be treated fairly, be accepted by a community, or get adequate medical care all of the time. These are not hypothetical scenarios for people living with mental illness; they are the harsh reality and negative impact of stigma.
Mental Illness Can Happen to Anybody
Everybody has mental health but mental health conditions and illness is different and symptoms will vary among individuals. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), "mental illness is a condition that affects a person's thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone's ability to function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis." Researchers believe multiple factors such as trauma, stress, genetics, environment, and lifestyle to play roles in the development of mental health conditions. Thus, mental illness is not the result of one event and doesn’t have a specific cause. Mental illness can happen to anybody, and it's nobody's fault.
Mental Health Issues are Common
It is shown that one in five adults will experience a mental health condition, impacting roughly 43.8 million adults every year. Also, one in 17 people suffers from a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Youth aren’t immune as 20% of kids aged 13-18 experience a mental health condition in any given year. The people behind these statistics are not all strangers; they are our friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, and church members. Many of them are reluctant to disclose personal mental health problems because of experiences with stigma and concerns for fear of discrimination, bullying, or targeted harassment.
Why Stigma is Harmful
Stigmatic thinking causes people to avoid, reject, or be afraid of those with a mental health condition. Understandably, people with mental health conditions earnestly try to hide what ails them out of fear of rejection, damage to their reputation or loss of fair opportunities. Stigma is harmful because it prevents individuals with real medical issues from seeking the help they require to get better. Negative impressions of mental health, therapy, psychiatry, and medication use force people into thinking they should conquer their problems alone and suffer in silence. The devastating result of someone enduring stigma is it leads to feelings of hopelessness, burdening frustration, isolation, self-doubt, and can tragically result in suicide. Ultimately, stigma is the main reason people do not ask for help. Hence the importance of not ignoring the subject of mental health and having "uncomfortable" conversations because not doing so could be destructive to one's life, livelihood, and detrimental to society. The more we talk about mental health, mental illnesses, and suicide the less taboo they become.
Consider this: if someone had cancer, needed chemotherapy, and a team of doctors they need to see regularly, nobody would humiliate them. Nobody tells a person who has cancer “don’t talk about it”, “it's all in your head”, or “you’re not trying hard enough.” People do not typically make someone with an incurable physical disease feel like it is their fault. Mental illness is as real as a physical illness and it deserves equal social acceptance.
Mental Illness is Manageable
The good news is that mental health conditions are manageable and suicide is 100% preventable. Early support is crucial to improving outcomes and ongoing treatment increases the chance of wellness and recovery. Moreover, different types of treatment and resources exist and it is essential we find what works best for us. Since treatment plans are as unique as people, no two will be identical.
Ways to Reduce and Overcome Stigma
Change happens through education, support, and improved communication. To reduce and overcome stigma we must work together, recognize, and accept that our word choice matters. The way we communicate, the specific words we choose to use, and how we treat others require our immediate attention. If we want to reverse the spreading of shame that stigma causes we must not shun, use insensitive sarcasm, call people names or criticize those with mental health conditions. Furthermore, become an advocate for mental health, stay informed with up-to-date research, learn the facts, ask questions respectfully, and listen without debate. Avoid discriminating language that could potentially contribute to stereotyping of a group and help debunk myths on the spot when we witness them. The obvious lesson here is mindfulness applied to our word choice benefits everybody's mental health.
In conclusion, we can better support those living with a mental health condition by offering an empathetic, compassionate, listening ear without the need to fix or judge them. See the person first and symptoms of their disease(s) separately. Be willing to give people a chance, include them in activities, invite them to functions, hire them for jobs, or spend time getting to know them. When we treat others the way we would want to be treated (with dignity, kindness, forgiveness, and respect), we pave the way for a healthier-in-mind society; something that's beneficial for all of humanity. Remember, it is okay not to feel okay and it’s NOT okay to shame someone for needing, asking, and seeking help. Make a conscious decision today to help end stigma by practicing mental health acceptance because we will all be better off for it. Aim to shame stigma, not people.