May is Mental Health Awareness month. This is a cause to celebrate and a clear indication that the critical importance of mental health is becoming more accepted, and that people are increasing their knowledge and awareness about how to be mentally healthy and how to help those who may be experiencing difficulties in this fundamental component of their overall health. Yet, there is still an underlying problem that continues to unnecessarily impact those who struggle with mental health issues; stigma. Fifteen years ago, a U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health—the first and only one to date—identified stigma as a public health concern that leads people to “avoid living, socializing or working with, renting to, or employing" individuals with mental illness. Stigma brings experiences and feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, distress, misrepresentation in the media, and reluctance to seek and/or accept necessary help.
Stigma is a problem. It’s a problem for people who want and need supports for mental health struggles. Yet because of ongoing negative societal views associated with mental illness, many individuals are unwilling to seek the help they need and would benefit from. Imagine if someone with cancer or diabetes was unwilling to get medical attention…this could lead to serious consequences. This is no different for someone struggling with a mental illness who could benefit from professional or even community supports, but does not because they are afraid, not without cause, that others will judge them for admitting that they are experiencing a mental health challenge. This judgement is based on outdated views of mental health, which paint the person with the issue as someone of deficient moral character, one of ‘those’ people, or someone who should be able to overcome the problem by themselves. What do you think about this perspective?
In the modern world, we think of ourselves as compassionate and informed, but the ongoing issues associated with stigma indicate that there is still work to be done. We must continue to dispel myths and eliminate unnecessary road blocks for people who want and need help. It is not that stigma hasn’t been discussed, not that accurate and helpful information is not readily available to address this issue, but that the actual ‘rubber meets the road’ aspect of the anti-stigma movement is still in its infancy. There remains much work to be done so that someone who is struggling with their mental health can truly feel both unashamed and unconcerned about letting their family, their friends, and their employer know that it is happening and that they are seeking help. There is still much work to be done so that when someone is experiencing a mental health challenge, others do not shy away but instead reach out to the person to lend a listening ear, possibly help them make a call for supports, and thus potentially help them before the situation becomes a crisis.
The desired outcome of this change in perspective and action is the very same as for a person with an ‘accepted’ physical illness; to seek and get the help they need. The best approach to help change the way stigma continues to impact our friends, our family, our community, and even ourselves is to take action such as increasing our knowledge about mental health, reaching out to someone in crisis, supporting them in their search for help, and having meaningful discussions about the topic of stigma on our communities. Through this course of action and support, we will help to take away the secrecy and shame that is so often unnecessarily associated with mental health stigma. This in turn will lead to more positive health outcomes for those who are struggling with mental illness, and will greatly lesson the additional and unnecessary struggles that result from stigma.
Approximately 75% of people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma. There are numerous groups associated with the anti-stigma movement, like NAMI’s ‘StigmaFree’, Demi Lovato’s ‘BeVocal’, the Twitter campaign ‘#endthestigma’ or Brattleboro Retreat’s ‘Stand Up To Stigma’ campaign. Every one of us has the ability to help reduce stigma and encourage compassion and acceptance. We can support people with psychiatric disorders and their families through recovery and social inclusion and by reducing discrimination. Simple ways to help include:
We know that stigma still exists, despite many years of work to change this unnecessary burden. Yet, every day brings new hope. Every day, we have an opportunity to help create a broader understanding of mental health, overcome stereotypes and break down barriers. We can all do a little bit more each day to eliminate stigma and replace it with help and hope. We can learn what we can do to help eliminate stigma for friends, family members, neighbors, or someone we simply pass by in the street.
It is important to also talk about what we can do to increase resilience and mental wellness in our life, our family’s lives and for our entire community. Modern science is now demonstrating very clearly that there are real action steps we can take to improve our mental health, and we now know that mental health is a cornerstone to a person’s whole health. A key component to mental health involves taking steps to increase our capacity to respond effectively to difficult situations in our life and to bounce back more quickly when these stressors come along. Here is a quick link to 10 tools from Mental Health America that anyone can use to take steps to improve their mental health.
As we learn more about what it is that can be done to support others and to avoid the unnecessary complications that stigma can bring, we will see improvements for community members, friends, family and even ourselves that previously may have been impeded or completely missed due to the burden of stigma. Take the NAMI StimaFree Pledge this month, learn more about how to support others by taking an Adult or Youth Mental Health First Aid class in our community, and remember that we are all in this together!
Written May 2017
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