The stigma associated with mental illness may be one of the leading reasons why people avoid seeking the support of close family and friends, and even the help of mental health professionals. Stigma perpetuates fear which leads to avoidance, unfair judgment, and isolation. This takes us further and further away from the things we really need: acceptance, support, help. But when we take the steps necessary to rid ourselves of shame, we become empowered and gain access to the wellness we so desperately crave.
Each one, teach one
The greatest way of combating stigma is through education and understanding. Understanding the truths about mental illness–how common it is, how it is treated, the many different kinds–offers an alternative to the skewed worst case scenarios that we tend to hear more about in the media. Be aware of your beliefs about mental illness and where they originated. Compare your beliefs to the myths and facts listed by mentalhealth.gov and see if your opinions change. Knowing (and sharing) the facts about mental illness is the first step to shaking stigma from mental health and ditching fear based on misunderstanding.
Labeling what appears different as “wrong” or “crazy” is easy because it separates us from the people who come to mind when we think of mental illness. Somehow, taking away our ability to identify with people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder gives us the false impression that illness is less likely to affect us. Labels dehumanize and simplify each person’s experience down to one or two words. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to slap a label on a person–which is why labeling is so easy. It does take psychic energy to empathize and care, free of judgment. The extra energy is worth it when it helps people–possibly someone you care about– get the support they need. It’s important to recognize the humanity and individuality of people with mental illness, and we can’t do that when we use hurtful, catch-all labels.
Acknowledge the whole person
Even a diagnosis may serve as a hurtful label if we are not cautious. See past the diagnosis to acknowledge the entire person. Their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and spirituality are still just as valid. Their talents, skills, and story are just as special and unique. A diagnosis describes a set of characteristics but does not define the whole person or his or her experiences. A diagnosis should never inhibit us from seeing a person as layered and complex. Seeing a person–truly seeing the whole person–helps us to relate to him or her in a way that deflates stigma and encourages a rounded sense of wellness.
Let go of fear and empower yourself
We have to ask, “What is it that I fear?” The helplessness associated with severe mental illness? The shame of struggling with depression or anxiety? Which do we actually fear more–mental illness or stigma? When we seek education and understanding, let go of labels, and see past a diagnosis, we may find that our fears are replaced with concern and support. Stigma is perpetuated by lack of education, judgments about others, and fear created from those things. When we question our beliefs about ourselves, and people with mental illness, we break down the barriers that keep us, and others, from a greater sense of wellness. We empower ourselves with the ability to heal.
If you are ready to break free of the stigma associated with mental health, let The Stone Foundation help. We are a team of counselors dedicated to seeing you live your best and most fulfilling life. Contact us at 410.296.2004 or visit us online. Please know that this article is intended for general, educational purposes only, and should not to take the place of professional counseling services or medical care.
Lauren Greenberg, MS, LGPC is a graduate of Loyola’s Counseling Practitioner Program. For three years, Lauren provided hotline crisis intervention to residents of Baltimore City. She also has experience providing counseling to students at a local college for issues including grief and loss, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, anxiety, and trauma. Her professional interests and areas of study include positive psychology, promoting social and emotional competence, and women’s issues.