Mental illness is no joke. In today’s society, 42.5 million Americans suffer from mental illnesses. For many of these individuals, fear plays a key role in their lives. Fear of what, you ask? They fear disclosure.
So many people with mental illnesses never tell anyone what they’re going through because they don’t know what sort of repercussions it might bring. There’s the ever-present fear of rejection: Will my family still love me if they know? Will my friends still want to be around me once they learn about my diagnosis? Will my performance at work be judged through a distorted lens? So they push through everyday life like everybody else—working, taking care of their families, playing sports, going to church, running businesses—but carrying a secret and suffering in silence due to the shame associated with having a mental illness
We have each worked for nearly two decades as mental health professionals and are passionate about the topic, which is why we’ve begun to write this blog. We wanted to start off with the topic of stigma because it’s critical that we as a society release the shame surrounding mental illness so that individuals living with these conditions (and their families) can get the help and support that they deserve.
At the heart of our strategy to destigmatize mental illness is the familiar adage, “knowledge is power.” We want to arm people with accurate, scientific information to replace much of the mythology and lore that surrounds mental illness in our society. Being aware and informed is the first step in helping a loved one or family member get the proper treatment they need to begin the road to recovery and emotional wellness. And that’s what we are setting out to do with this blog.
The problem is that our society struggles with accepting mental illness. Mental illnesses are less likely to be accepted than medical conditions. Most people—57 percent of those surveyed by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System—feel that there is general sympathy extended toward individuals with mental illnesses. But those on the receiving end report that they are not feeling the love.
While those who have had a heart attack may get flowers, those who’ve had a manic episode may be ridiculed and shunned. Research has shown that on TV alone, 63 percent of references to mental health are unsympathetic, using terms such as basket case, loony tunes, psycho, and crackpot to describe people with mental illnesses. Imagine if people with cancer were referred to in this degrading way?
We would like to offer three strategies to individuals and their families for overcoming the stigma of mental health:
1. Get clear and factual information. Do as much research as you can so that you are knowledgeable about what mental disorders are, and what they are not. Recognize that mental illness is not a moral failing, a willful decision, a sin, or an inherent weakness. They are diseases—just like cardiac disease or asthma—that manifest with impaired thinking, abnormal emotional responses, or decreased functioning. By taking the simple step of educating yourself on what mental illness is really all about, you will be able to begin the process of overcoming stigma.
2. Be conscious of your words. “Could you stop that? It’s driving me crazy!” “I am totally OCD about cleaning my house.” “I couldn’t make up my mind—I was being really schizophrenic.” How many times have you made these types of statements?
The language of mental illness, for better or for worse, has become an everyday part of the Western language lexicon. We all say things we don’t mean literally. To the person with the mental illness, there is likely not a lot of humor in their situation, and to hear this language or see it treated as a joke can be extremely hurtful.
The point here is to begin a thoughtful discussion about how we relate to those with mental illness, including the words that we use in everyday language. Instead of focusing on the negative, it is more productive to take a people-first approach to language and ensure that you are valuing and affirming all people in our lives and in our communities, whether they are officially diagnosed with mental illnesses or not.
3. Show compassion. Reach out to a loved one, friend, co-worker with a mental illness. Listen to them. Respect what they’re feeling. Understand that mental illness may not just disappear over time on its own. It requires treatment, and when it goes untreated, the consequences could be drastic.
There’s a tendency to shun people with mental illness, ignoring or avoiding them because they make you uncomfortable. We believe this kind of response only perpetuates the stigma associated with that individual, making them feel even more isolated than ever. Increase your empathy and show compassion for those living with mental illness.
Over the years, we hope people will embrace the reality of mental illness as part of our society. If each and every one of us makes a conscious step to avoid stigmatizing individuals who live with mental illness, we will empower them to become happy and productive members of our communities. In future blog posts, we will provide fact-based information and strategies for those living with mental illness, as well as for their loved ones.