Let’s Talk About Stigma

As you might know, May is Mental Illness Awareness Month. It’s a time when we can specifically focus on raising awareness about the multitude of issues facing those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It is also a time to work to dismantle a detrimental barrier to treatment: stigma.

So, what is stigma? Stigma is any kind of negative attitude, belief, or behavior directed at folks with mental illness. Often, beliefs that display stigma are well-intentioned, but misguided. These attitudes often result in people with mental illness feeling judged, misunderstood, and silenced. Stigma can lead people to avoid seeking support, not attempting to get the medical help they need, or feeling that they are to blame for the symptoms they are experiencing. In the black community, a pre-existing mistrust of the medical system in general makes stigma even more dangerous. In the United States, about 1 in 5 adults will meet the criteria for some form of mental illness at some point in their lifetime. This means that if you do not meet criteria yourself, someone you know surely does! People with mental illness are not “them”; people with mental illness are “us.” Statistics suggest that while African Americans experience mental health symptoms at a rate comparable with the overall population, we are less likely to seek treatment (either therapy or medication), less likely to be consistent with that treatment, and more likely to use emergency vs. preventive services. This means that our difficulty seeking help leads us to crisis situations that are often completely preventable! We can literally save lives if we work to combat stigma and encourage people to seek help rather than trying to handle things by themselves.

Here are some examples of things you might have heard or said that demonstrate conscious or unconscious stigma:

  • People with mental illness are “crazy,” dangerous, and cannot be trusted.
  • Keeping secrets about mental health diagnoses, or avoiding the signs that something is wrong with you or a family member.
  • “Black people don’t go to therapy- that’s for white folks.”
  • People with mental illness should just “get over it” or “fake it til they make it.”
  • Using coded, disrespectful language to describe people with mental illness- “coo-coo”; “bipolar”; “missing a few screws”- etc.

While these may seem harmless, they send implicit messages to folks who might be struggling that you will not see and respect their experience, and that you are not a person who can be helpful to them. So what can you do instead?

First, it’s important to realize that mental illness is no different than diabetes or a heart problem. It’s a medical condition that is treatable and people can often live normal lives while they work to manage their symptoms. For some folks, symptoms of a mental illness are the result of trauma, unhealthy relationships, or dysfunctional thinking styles. For others, they might be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. For others, it could be a combination of the two. Whatever the cause is, there is a treatment that can be helpful, but in order to do that, people have to admit something is going on, and seek help.

Second, if you have someone who shares that they are having mental health symptoms with you, don’t downplay what they are saying. Acknowledge the difficulty the person must be having, and help them brainstorm ways they can begin to seek help. Often, the most helpful thing you can do is simply to listen and let the person know they are not alone. Pray with them and for them, AND help them to find a health care provider who can meet their needs. If you have some questions about therapy, check out my previous post on this topic. 

Third, be careful about your language. Refrain from using words or phrases that might be harmful to folks struggling with mental illness. If you’ve dealt with a mental illness or have been to therapy, consider being open about that process. One of the best ways to combat stigma is to put a name and a face to the experience! Whenever I do workshops, I always say I’ve been to therapy. It helps to reinforce the idea that therapy is something that can be helpful to anyone regardless of their level of success, education, or status. For more information on how to combat stigma, check out the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have wonderful resources, and this month, there is a special campaign focused on combatting negative attitudes about mental illness, dubbed #curestigma.

This issue is too important for us to remain silent. People’s lives are literally at stake, and we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Together, we can #curestigma and create and environment where everyone can get the help they need.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

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