While the conversation surrounding mental illness is definitely improving in both its frequency and its sentiment, unfortunately, many still feel stigmatized. Despite how commonplace mental illness may be, those who experience it often face shame and discrimination from those around them based on these conditions. It’s a societal problem that many, including organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and celebrities like Halsey, are working to change for the better.
Of course, shifting a narrative goes beyond celebrities and nonprofits. It matters in our everyday thoughts, language, and actions as well. In fact, some of these small things perpetuate stigma in ways we might not even realize. While we may not be keeping the stigma alive intentionally, intention does not necessarily lead to impact. Becoming more aware of the language we use and the things we do is one way to help combat this issue. Below are five ways that we might be perpetuating the stigma surrounding mental health and what we can do instead.
Using mental health disorders as adjectives.
How many times have you heard someone describe a meticulous person as “OCD”? What about calling fluctuating weather “bipolar”? The answer is probably a lot. According to Everyday Feminism, using mental health disorders in the place of adjectives diminishes the seriousness of mental illnesses, further contributing to stigma and spreading misinformation as to what it really means to be mentally ill. Instead, licensed professional counselor Mallory Gollick recommends educating ourselves on these conditions to better understand them so we do not use them as buzzwords.
“We use a lot of mental health terminology as buzzwords,” Gollick tells Teen Vogue. “This feeds the misunderstandings of mental health and perpetuates stigma. Bipolar disorder, for example, is one of the most misunderstood mental health diagnoses by the general public and one of the most common to be used as a buzzword. We need to educate ourselves on what bipolar disorder actually consists of and what it looks like, so we can stop the stigma and educate others when they hear mental health used in this way.”
Using phrases like, “Just snap out of it!”
Not only does this delegitimize someone’s mental illness, it also places the blame on the person experiencing it by making it seem like some sort of choice. Asking someone to just “stop” or “snap out of it” is like asking someone with, say, appendicitis, to stop the inflammation in their appendix by thinking positively. Physical health doesn’t work that way and neither does mental health.
Instead, you can ask how someone is feeling and listen, or simply just validate what it is the person affected is feeling. Sometimes, just knowing that someone else is listening can make all the difference in the world.
By treating psychiatric medication differently than medication you’d take for a physical illness.
There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the medication used to treat mental illnesses — and there is a lot of shame, too. Medication can oftentimes be viewedas a crutch, or something only “crazy” people need. This, of course, isn’t true.
“Stigma around mental health medications is that we ‘should’ be able to pull ourselves out of it. We constantly invalidate those with mental health with beliefs like this,” Gollick says. “The reality is, if it were possible to just ‘pull ourselves out of it,’ suicide wouldn’t be the 10th most common cause of death in the United States, and the only one in the top 10 that is trending in the wrong direction.
“Medication for mental health is no different than medication someone would need to take for a physical condition,” Gollick explains. “To maintain a healthy blood pressure, someone with high blood pressure takes a daily beta-blocker to stabilize their blood pressure. Similarly, someone with bipolar disorder may take a daily mood stabilizer to stabilize their mood.”
By not discussing mental health at all.
“One way I notice the stigma is our passivity in how we as a society talk about mental health,” Gollick says. “We aren’t taught the language around discussing mental health and how to respond to it in the way we would respond to a physical condition that is going on in the body. Our brain is the most complex organ, yet we’re terrified to talk about what is happening in large amount of our population’s brains.”
While it’s not always up to those with mental illnesses to bear the weight of responsibility in educating and discussing their mental health, if you have a moment when or if you feel up to sharing what it is you experience, do so. This helps demystify the conditions that affect so many people. Additionally, if you are someone who does not struggle with a mental illness, don’t be afraid to educate yourself, ask questions, and approach this topic with sensitivity and a nonjudgmental stance. It’s up to all of us to tackle the stigma, whether it affects you directly or not — and doing so is crucial.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the side effects of mental health stigma are those who struggle refusing to seek help, lack of understanding from one’s family and friends, fewer opportunities for work and school, bullying, and more.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please know that you are not alone. “If you are not being supported, find your local NAMI chapter or community mental health center for support,” Gollick suggests. Mental health can be an incredibly scary and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Reach out, speak up, and get help. It’s out there.
If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join