• By Elizabeth Coots, Extension Agent

Reducing the stigma around mental health issues

Most people who live with mental illness have been blamed for their condition at one point or another in time. They have been called names. People say their symptoms are something they should be able to control. They may have experienced discrimination because of their mental illness. Stigma holds a huge amount of power. Stigma causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. The worst part of all is that stigma can prevent people from seeking the help they need. For a group of people who already carry such a heavy burden, stigma is a horrible addition to their pain. Stigma has reduced in recent years. However, the pace of progress has not been fast enough. All of us need to raise our voices against stigma. We need to stand up to stigma every day in our lives. If you are not sure how to help reduce stigma around mental illness, here are some ideas:

1. Talk openly about mental health. Some people fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have a mental illness with others. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it.

2. Educate yourself and others. Take every opportunity to educate people and share your personal story and struggles with mental illness. It may be something you have dealt with yourself or simply someone you know. If you hear someone make a rude remark about mental illness, use it as a learning opportunity. Gently intervene and kindly express how this makes you feel. Let people know that we need to stop negative remarks about it because it only adds to the stigma.

3. Be conscious of the language you use. Language matters. We must remind people of this. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives. Help people to replace their usage of it with something else. Most people are willing to do this once someone explains why their language is problematic.

4. Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. When people see mental illness as a disease, they begin to think twice about making comments. Would you make fun of someone with cancer or heart disease? Then why would you make fun of someone with depression or anxiety? A little education can go a long way to help people see why their negative comments add to the stigma.

5. Show compassion for those with mental illness. Many of our homeless population are struggling with mental illness Have you ever stopped and talked with someone who is living on the street? Try it. Ask them what their lives are like. Do it in front of others to model compassion for others. The simple act of showing concern or compassion for a person who is homeless can make their day brighter. It can also remind others to show humanity to those who are suffering.

6. Choose empowerment over shame. Fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. This means taking responsibility for your life and your actions. Do not let others dictate how you view yourself or how you should feel about yourself.

Be honest about treatment. It is okay to see a therapist. It is okay to tell people you see a therapist. People can say they have an appointment with a primary care doctor without fear of being judged. However, this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health. When people are less afraid to talk about it, stigma is reduced.

Let the media know when they are stigmatizing others. Write to a broadcasting company if they are showing programs that have negative comments, story lines or characters with a mental illness. Kindly confront people on Facebook and social media when they make ignorant comments about mental health. Share a story about someone in your own family who has faced the stigma involved with mental illness.

Do not harbor stigma about yourself. Do not hide in shame if you have a mental illness. Ask for help. Show people that a person with mental illness can be a productive member of society. Volunteer at places where you can help other people who are coping with mental illness. Take your treatment seriously. Show others that you can have a meaningful life even while battling a mental illness.

This is what our collective voice sounds like. It sounds like bravery, strength and persistence. These are the qualities we need to face mental illness and to fight stigma in our society. No matter how you contribute to the mental health movement, you can make a difference simply by knowing that mental illness is not anyone’s fault, no matter what societal stigma says.

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