Overcoming the Mental Illness Stigma

If you or a loved one needs mental health services, it can be difficult to overcome the mental illness stigma that you might have unconsciously placed on mental health and its associated issues. Even if you are not personally affected by mental health concerns, chances are extremely high that someone in your circle of friends, family, or acquaintances is struggling; it is estimated that one in five teens and adults will be affected by some type of mental illness each year. It is important to understand mental illness stigma and the issues attached to it, so you can do your part in helping yourself and others to overcome it.

What Is Mental Illness Stigma?

A stigma is when a person is seen or treated in a negative way due to some difference or characteristic that they have. Many people think that those struggling with mental illnesses are weak, violent, pretending, or deficient in some other way. Because of these stigmas, individuals struggling with mental health issues might find themselves discriminated against or excluded from various parts of life, from job opportunities to social gatherings.

What Are Some Stigmas Concerning Mental Health Conditions?

There are many myths and misconceptions that people believe about those with mental health conditions. Here are some of the most common, as well as the truth.

Myth #1: People with mental illness are violent.

When there is a violent tragedy, such as a school shooting, many people say that better access to mental health care could prevent these occurrences. While it may be true that someone who commits a heinous crime might have a mental health issue, it is also true that the vast, vast majority of people suffering from mental health issues will never become violent. Most people with mental illness are a danger to themselves in the sense that they might not take good care of themselves or might self-harm in some way, but they are very rarely a danger to anyone else.

Myth #2: People with mental illness can simply stop being that way.

Nobody would choose to have a mental health condition, and it is not possible to simply stop having depression, an anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, a mood disorder, or any other mental illness. Consider whether you would tell someone who is, for example, diabetic to stop being diabetic. Or whether you would say to someone with a broken leg that they are simply not trying hard enough to walk. Of course you wouldn’t! That is the same consideration that should be given to someone struggling with a mental health issue.

Myth #3: People with mental illness are weak.

This is a popular myth, but it is not true. In fact, those who manage to do some or all of their daily tasks and hold down responsibilities while also struggling with a mental health condition are strong, not weak. If someone seeks mental health care, that also makes them strong, because the stigmas surrounding mental health care are strong and can be cruel.

Myth #4: People with mental health issues are simply looking for attention.

Usually, people with mental illnesses would greatly prefer that their afflictions were not noticed by others. In fact, those with these conditions are often very good at hiding them. Consider that approximately one in five people struggles with their mental health. Out of your circle of acquaintances, can you name one person out of every five who has a mental health issue? It is likely that you can’t and that most people in your outer circle are not vocal about having this type of issue with their mental health.

Getting Past Mental Illness Stigma

Whether you are struggling with mental illness yourself or you are trying to understand and help someone else, there are some steps you can take to overcome mental illness stigma that you or your loved ones feel or experience.

Step 1: The first is to talk about your mental health issue. Posting about it on your social media (whether you identify yourself as one going through the struggle or you simply post as an observant and caring bystander) can help raise awareness. You could link to this article or to another one that defeats the myths surrounding mental illness. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can share your own feelings about the struggles that you have been through, if applicable. If it is a friend or family member who has struggled, get their permission before posting any information about them.

Step 2: Another way to get past mental illness stigma is to correct people when they say something offensive or incorrect. For example, if someone says that they believe an acquaintance might commit a violent crime because he is struggling with an anxiety disorder, you can lay that myth to rest by explaining that people with anxiety disorders are no more likely to be violent than people without anxiety disorders. In fact, people with mental health disorders are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator.

Step 3: Finally, you can encourage your loved ones to be screened for mental health issues if you or they are concerned. If you notice the signs of depression or anxiety in a loved one, gently broach the topic with them. Ask if they would like you to go with them to see a healthcare professional who can screen them. Or you can offer them a website to take a screening test in the privacy of their own home, then ask whether they’d like a ride to a mental health professional who can decipher the results.

Being an Ally

Mental illness can be a very lonely and discouraging condition. By stepping up as an ally and as someone who understands, you can help those who are suffering feel safer coming to you and seeking help. In fact, since depression and some other mental health conditions can be risk factors for suicide, you just might be saving a life by speaking up and lending an encouraging word to a friend or family member.

If you have questions about mental health disorders, talk to your primary care physician to get more information. He or she can also recommend a counselor if you believe that you or a close friend or family member needs one.