The first week of October each year is Mental Illness Awareness Week. While organizations and advocates nationwide use this week to spread awareness around mental illness and fight the stigma, mental health is an issue that should be discussed year-round.
Unfortunately, some people have a general lack of compassion and understanding of people who suffer from mental illness. As a result, it provokes stigma. Stigma is a dangerous thing, as it can prevent people who are suffering from getting help. It can cause many people to suffer in silence.
Mental Illness in America
Mental illness affects Americans at staggering rates. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experiences mental illness each year, and one in 25 experience serious mental illness. However, only 43.3% with mental illness and 64.1% with serious mental illness received treatment in 2018.
Despite how common mental illness is, the average delay between the onset of mental health symptoms and treatment is 11 years. With 90% of all people who die by suicide reportedly showing symptoms of mental illness, 11 years until treatment is far too long.
In addition, mental illness can negatively affect a person’s quality of life. Mental illness can result in the inability to hold a job, inability to enjoy day to day life, and difficulty coping with emotions. As a result. people with mental illness experience homelessness, incarceration, and substance use disorders at alarming rates. All of these issues pose serious threats, as those who are homeless struggle to maintain a job, those who are incarcerated are often denied the health care they need, and those who struggle with substance use disorder may abuse their prescriptions or experience a worsening of mental health symptoms while substances change the brain.
What Is Stigma?
Stigma refers to the disapproval of or discrimination against a person based on his or her characteristics that set that person apart from other members of society. People with mental illness are often the target of stigmatizing language, such as:
“It’s not that bad, other people have it worse.”
“You’re just being overdramatic.”
“Do you really need that medication?”
“Just get up and do what you need to do, it’s not that hard.”
In addition, terms that are used to describe people with mental illness such as “crazy”, “irrational”, and “psychotic” all carry a stigma as they are extremely demeaning.
Stigma also occurs through rejection and judgment of people with mental illness, such as being rejected by their peers or being the victims of bullying or gaslighting.
A major result of stigma is that it causes individuals to become reluctant to seek help. After all, when we have a fever, most don’t hesitate to go to the doctor. At the same time, when we break a bone there is no hesitation to visit the emergency room. Sadly, mental health isn’t always treated in the same way. There should be no shame in going to speak to a therapist when someone’s mental health is not well. There shouldn’t be shame in somebody admitting that, mentally, they are not okay. Nobody deserves to suffer in silence.
Here’s What You Can Do
People who suffer from mental illness already carry a heavy burden, and stigma only adds weight to it. Instead, fighting back against the stigma can help lighten the burden by encouraging people to seek help. Here are six ways you can fight the stigma of mental illness.
1. Educate yourself.
It’s crucial to educate yourself about mental illness, stigma, and mental healthcare before you can begin to take action. There is a plethora of information out there on the internet about mental illness. Spend some time learning about how mental health affects individuals, communities, workplaces, and the nation as a whole. The more informed you are, the more effective your actions will be.
2. Change your language and thinking.
Become aware of any stigmatizing language you may use and make an effort to change it. In addition, start thinking of mental health as you do physical health – with a sense of urgency. With these ideas in mind, you can start to feel and demonstrate compassion, understanding, and support towards those who are suffering.
3. Challenge the stigma.
Next, start to challenge the myths of mental health. Make an appointment with a counselor or therapist and see what it is like to be the patient. Have your own mental health evaluated. After all, it can’t hurt, and your experience can be used to help someone else. In addition, start taking time each day to care for your mental health. Whether that means keeping a journal, going for a walk, or meditating, learn about healthy habits that promote better mental health.
4. Educate others.
Speak openly and honestly with others about your mental health and your journey thus far. Share with them what you have learned about mental illness. Stigma thrives in dark, quiet places, among people who feel uncomfortable discussing mental health. An important part of breaking this stigma is to begin normalizing the conversation around mental health. You can be an example by showing others that it’s acceptable to discuss mental health.
5. Become an advocate and get involved.
Encourage your friends and families to take steps towards enhancing their own mental health. You can also explain to them how important it is to show compassion towards people suffering from mental illness. To advocate for others, begin sharing your own story. Speaking up about mental health is critical to fighting the stigma. After all, you never know who you may inspire or help. You could be the source of hope that inspires somebody to ask for help.
To take your advocacy a step further, reach out to local community organizations that work with people with mental illness or work to improve mental healthcare. Find out if there are any programs or legislation that you can begin to support.
Stigma doesn’t disappear overnight. Instead, it requires an ongoing effort. It’s important to speak up and advocate for people who suffer from mental illness every day of the year. The more you shed light on mental illness, the more lives you can affect, and the less power stigma will have over others. Keep speaking up and repeat these steps to produce greater change.
Mental illness affects millions worldwide. The more effort that is put into breaking the stigma, the more people will begin to speak up and seek out the help that they desperately need. By sharing your story and becoming an advocate, you can serve as the source of strength and hope that another person needs to see.
Guest post by Cassidy Webb