Fighting Stigma

Fighting Stigma

Do you know someone with a mental illness? Odds are that, even if you don’t know it, you have a friend, colleague or a family member who experiences some form of mental illness, whether it’s severe depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or a host of other conditions.

This week has been designated as Mental Illness Awareness Week, and it’s a good time to look at some facts that might surprise you: According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.

Although more children suffer from psychiatric illness than autism, leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined, only one of five with an emotional disturbance gets treatment from a mental health specialist.

Andrew Malekoff, Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, asks, “Why do we continue to treat illnesses above the neck differently than illnesses below the neck? The sad truth is that, although there has been some progress, there’s still a stigma about mental health. The result is that parents often wait months or even years to ask for help.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that the consequences of stigma are far-reaching and potentially devastating. Stigma means that people living with mental health conditions are:

  • Alienated and seen as “others.”
  • Perceived as dangerous.
  • Seen as irresponsible or unable to make their own decisions.
  • Less likely to be hired.
  • Less likely to get safe housing.
  • More likely to be criminalized than offered health care services.
  • Afraid of rejection to the point that they don’t always pursue opportunities.

How can you help end the stigma?

The first step, says Malekoff, is to educate yourself about mental health and mental illness so you can challenge misconceptions, myths and generalizations about people with mental health problems. Both the NIMH and NAMI websites are great resources, as is the Bring Change to Mind site.

Some more suggestions from Malekoff:

  • Be aware of language that you use that reinforces stigma, like saying someone is “crazy” or “psycho” or “a nut job,” for example.
  • Eliminate the phrase “suffers from mental illness” and replace it with “lives with mental illness” or “is affected by mental illness.” I.e., instead of saying “Joe is bipolar,” say “Joe is living with bipolar disorder.”
  • Be thoughtful and empathic when communicating with someone who is suffering from a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, or with a parent whose child might be struggling with a mental health problem.
  • Don’t avoid the subject; instead, ask questions in a supportive manner if you’re not sure what is happening. For example, you might say, “I don’t mean to pry but it seems like you’re struggling. I’m here for you if you need me.”
  • Understand that people suffering from mental illness are not the sum of their broken, hurt or troubled parts, but they are whole people; try to relate to the whole person, not just the broken parts. 

Take a look at this video from Bring Change to Mind for more on how to end the stigma: