Strategies Against the Mental Health Stigma
Written by: Kiara Vega
Stigma is defined as a set of negative and often shameful, unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something, and it poses a real threat to the collective and individual treatment of mental health. Human cognition is naturally social, and our mental well-being in part depends on our interactions with others. Stigmatization can lead to social distancing, exacerbating feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation in someone suffering from mental illness. These can pose barriers to recovery from mental illness and, in some cases, end in lethal consequences.
Stigmatization of mental health is a pernicious and discriminatory practice that is symptomatic of ignorance or denial about mental illness. It leads to individuals being ostracized or shamed if they show signs of mental illness, which reduces the willingness of the individual to seek treatment or even admit to the existence of their illness, developing self-stigma. In a poll conducted in 2019, most Americans who participated were of the opinion that people living with mental illness still faced “a lot” of stigma and discrimination. Stigma is recognized as a prevailing pressure against recovery and treatment of mental illness, which is why there is a need for members of a society that recognizes mental health as a priority to actively dismantle stigma. To protect and bolster mental health, which is integral to an individual’s well-being, we must learn how to prevent stigmatization of mental illness and avoid the human cost of harboring unfair and uninformed beliefs about mental health. There are several strategies that you can take if you personally aim to eradicate and fight against the stigma surrounding mental health:
1. Educate yourself and others about mental health. If you have internet access, there is no excuse for obliviousness if you want to learn about a certain topic, especially mental health. Acquiring an understanding of mental health empowers you to spread it, while enabling you to be more empathic and helpful to those who are suffering from illness. Moreover, you can help dispel ignorance when you detect it, which is one of the main sources of stigma. This is perhaps the most powerful strategy you can take since it will lead to changes in your thinking about mental health and guide you to adopt behaviors that turn you into a positive role model and resource for others who also care about advocating for better mental health. Start your education on mental health today by reading up on mental health info provided by the National Institute of Mental Health.
2. Talk openly about mental health. Openness is the best way to share your knowledge and personal experience of mental health. It takes courage to open up about your own experience with mental illness so be appreciative and listen carefully when others share with you. I like to think of it as a kind of group therapy when people can engage empathically and safely in discourse about their experiences with mental illness. It is an encouraging and healing way to connect with and learn about each other.
3. Do not label or stereotype people with mental illness. Stereotyping is not entirely useless since it provides a handy social characterization of something we may not fully want to understand or present in a nuanced fashion. Labeling people as “crazy”, “psycho”, or “bipolar” is a popular way of stigmatizing negative or erratic behaviors, instead of promoting a useful or empathic understanding of mental health. Being aware of the harm of stereotyping can help you become a conscientious ally to those who are truly struggling to take care of their mental health.
4. Encourage equality between mental and physical illness. Guys, it’s 2020. If you are out here thinking that your mental health has little to do with your physical well-being, you need to read the memo: our experiences as humans are as mental as they are physical, and if you don’t take care of one aspect of your well-being, it will affect the other. People who struggle with mental illness experience physical stress and ailments due to these conditions just as patients with physical illnesses may suffer great mental stress and even develop bouts of mental illness because of their condition. We cannot afford the expense of ignorance on this front: it is important that you recognize that both the mental and physical are products of the same biology. Having borderline personality disorder should be treated as seriously as having diabetes.
5. Choose empowerment over shame. This is at the heart of eradicating stigma. And if you have adopted the previous strategies in your fight against mental health stigma, then you are already erasing the mark of shame associated with being mentally ill. Those who experience any type of illness benefit greatly from the support of others and your encouragement could make a real difference in someone’s struggle to overcome their mental illness.
6. Become an advocate for policies that encourage better mental health. If you have the time, resources, and willingness, you can become an advocate for policies that actually make a difference in how mental health is being treated and viewed. Join organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness in their efforts to advocate for better public policy on mental health and take their pledge to be stigma-free.