One in five adults in the United States suffer from at least one diagnosed mental health issue every year (Source: National Institute for Mental Health). That’s about 52 million individuals. To put that into perspective, imagine you and your four closest family members or friends are all sitting together around a table. Statistically, one of you will be struggling with at least one mental health issue, whether that be depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD or any number of diagnosable mental health issues. But how many times a year do you have a conversation about mental health with those four people? Your answer is probably zero. Why is that?
There are three categories of mental health stigma. Each one contributes to the barrier between you and your discussion about mental health. So, let’s talk about how to reduce that barrier and overcome each stigma in order to better talk about mental health with not only your loved ones, but also yourself.
Public stigma surrounding mental health is the negative attitudes or perceptions that the general public has about mental health. The common public belief about mental health is that “people with mental issues are dangerous, incompetent, to blame for their disorder [and] unpredictable” (Source: American Psychiatric Association).
What can affect public stigma? Movies and television shows like Criminal Minds, Mindhunter, the 2019 film version of the Joker, etc., are all forms of media that represent individuals with mental illness who turn violent. These individuals and their mental health are portrayed in a way that fuels the prejudice and stereotypes the public already believes about mental health – they are dangerous, incompetent and unpredictable.
Personal stigma is the negative attitudes or perceptions that an individual has about their own mental health. Individuals with their own prejudices about mental health that are fueled by public stigma believe they are “dangerous, incompetent, [and] to blame [for their condition]” (APA).
What can affect personal stigma? The public perception of mental health is the baseline for how people think about their own mental health. If they are commonly in contact with these negative perceptions and harmful stereotypes about mental health, it is more likely that they are going to turn that stigma towards themselves. In addition, how those in their direct circle talk about mental health can contribute to their beliefs about mental health.
Institutional stigma is how the general public’s belief about mental health affects the system. The government and private organizations may intentionally or unintentionally alter laws and opportunities that directly or indirectly affect those with mental illness based on the prejudices and stereotypes of individuals with mental health (APA).
Again, institutional stigma stems from the public’s beliefs about mental health and how those with mental health are perceived to be dangerous, incompetent, and unpredictable. There are several areas where mental health stigma is purposefully embodied in laws and other institutions – the “insanity defense” in the legal system, mental health coverage not being included in most health care insurance plans, no formal mental health education in schools.
So how can you and your four closest family members or friends reduce the stigma surrounding mental health? Here are five ways to do so:
Acknowledge the harmful effects of stigma
Common effects fueled by stigma include low self-esteem, difficulty with social relationships, difficulty at work and school and decreased likelihood to seek help at a crucial time. By recognizing the harmful effects that negative stereotypes and prejudices towards mental health affect the public’s perception of mental health, you can easily identify ways to flip the script and change your attitudes and actions towards mental health.
Educate yourself on the topic of mental health
Learn what mental health disorders look like in real life. What are common symptoms of depression? Anxiety? OCD? What do you look for in yourself? What do you look for in others? Knowing what these disorders look like outside of media portrayals is crucial to understanding the symptoms and what to look for, which makes it easier to know when it is time to get help. Utilize resources like the APA website and local community mental health centers to get an idea.
Educate others on the topic of mental health
Once you have a decent understanding of mental health yourself, use the opportunity to talk about it openly with others. If you notice a close friend is showing signs of a depressive episode, talk to them about what you have observed and let them know why it is important that they seek help. If you hear classmates or co-workers talking about mental health in a demeaning, stigmatized way, speak up and let them know what the reality is. Don’t be afraid to correct others and push the idea that mental health does not equal dangerousness and incompetence.
Be mindful of your language
Don’t throw around vocabulary associated with mental health haphazardly. Meaning, don’t use the word “depressed” when you are just having a bad day. Don’t use the word “anxiety” when you are nervous about a test or a presentation. Don’t use “OCD” when you like to keep your room tidy. Throwing around words and phrases meant to define mental health only contribute to the stereotypes and prejudices towards mental health and makes it difficult for people struggling with these disorders to feel comfortable speaking up and seeking help.
Openly discuss your experience with mental health
Given that one in five individuals struggle with some sort of mental illness, make it a habit to openly talk about your own experience with mental health, if that is something you are comfortable with. Talking about mental health creates a domino effect – once one person speaks out and acknowledges their mental health, another person follows, and then another, and then another. Knowing that someone else is struggling with something similar makes it easier for others to recognize that they may also be struggling. People find comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
So, the next time you are sitting around a table with your family or friends, think about the fact that at that very moment, one of you may very well be struggling with mental health, and don’t be afraid to start up a conversation.
This blog was written by Kayla Pray, Residential Clinician at Community Reach Center.