Breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness has been on my mind a lot lately. May is Mental Health Awareness Month! I thought this would be the perfect time to write a post about what you can do to help break the stigma of mental illness.
The truth is mental illness is incredibly common. One in five adults in the US experiences mental illness in a given year. It is highly likely that you know someone who has experienced a mental illness, or that you have experienced one yourself.
What is the Stigma?
Mental health stigma is the prejudice and discrimination against people with a mental illness. The stigma can be subtle or obvious, but regardless, it can lead to harm.
More than half of people with a mental illness do not get any support or treatment for their condition. Sometimes people will avoid getting important treatment because they fear being treated differently.
Lack of understanding or fear often causes stigma. In our culture, the media typically portrays mental illness in a negative light. This further perpetuates the stigma in our society.
Here are some examples of movies that inaccurately portray mental illness and perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Stigma surrounding mental illnesses not only affects the people that suffer from the conditions; it also affects their loved ones and family members.
The stigma can also cause harm by attributing to lower self-esteem, withdrawal from others due to fear of non-acceptance, reduced hope, and less likelihood that individuals will continue their treatment.
What Can I Do to Break the Stigma? Debunking Mental Illness Myths and Stereotypes
The good news is times are changing, and it’s becoming more acceptable to talk openly about mental illness, but we still have a long way to go. We can all do our part to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.
I wrote a few basic facts about mental illness that I have learned through my own experience and by getting involved in mental health advocacy.
I hope that by sharing these facts that are often misunderstood, I can help to educate and spread awareness to those who have less experience or exposure to mental illness.
4 Important Truths about Mental Illness:
The person with the mental health condition is not the mental illness
This is probably the most basic and fundamental fact about mental illness that gets confused very often. How many times have you heard things like “Sally is bipolar”, “Fred is schizophrenic”? Probably a lot.
The fact is Sally is NOT bipolar. Sally is Sally. Sally is a person with a life, a family, hopes, and dreams who happens to be diagnosed with a health condition called bipolar.
These types of statements perpetuate the myth that the person is their illness, and this is simply not true. If someone has cancer, we don’t say “She is cancer”. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s actually kind of funny when you think about it that way.
Mental illnesses are medical conditions, just like physical illnesses
I think that a really important thing to understand is that mental illnesses are medical conditions, just like physical illnesses. Mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness.
As an example, it isn’t possible for someone with depression to “snap out of it”, “look on the bright side”, or “just cheer up”. Depression is an illness. To put this into perspective, you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it and walk.
Mental illness is a health condition just like heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure. People with mental illnesses do not choose to have the condition. Mental health conditions are caused by chemical imbalances and are treatable just like physical illnesses.
Using mental illness metaphors to describe undesirable behavior is harmful and perpetuates stigma
We have all heard it before. “He is so OCD”. “Stop acting so bipolar”. These phrases make me cringe. Many people don’t realize that they are harmful and offensive to those who actually struggle with these conditions.
OCD is not synonymous with germaphobia or being very organized. Bipolar is not synonymous with acting moody. I could go on and on. Using these phrases demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the real condition is and the pain that the person and their family go through.
People with mental illness can live happy, meaningful, productive lives
The final fact I want to share is that people who experience mental illness can live happy, meaningful, and productive lives. Just like with most physical health conditions, treatment is available for mental health conditions and recovery is absolutely possible. There is no shame in getting help, talking to a therapist, or taking medication.
Experiencing a mental health condition can be one very small part of a person’s life, but does not define it. People with mental illnesses can live fulfilling and happy lives, just like anyone else.
They can also do meaningful work and have incredible achievements. A few examples of famous people with mental health diagnoses include Michael Phelps, Lady Gaga, J.K. Rowling, and countless others.
Let’s Break the Stigma! Additional Resources
Together, we can all do our part to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and make the world a better place for everyone. To get additional information about breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness, you can check out these resources: