The American Psychological Association has reported that more than 50% of people with mental illness do not receive services. Rather, they tend to avoid seeking treatment out of fear of the way people may react to them, think about them, or treat them. This is mental health stigma. Stigma can be defined as a negative social attitude that is attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be viewed as a mental, physical or social deficit. Mental Health Stigma can have several harmful effects on an individual such as a low-self-esteem, reduced hope, and an increase in psychiatric symptoms.
Stigma is not always a conscious act. I would say that the majority of people stigmatize more unconsciously than they may recognize. Next time you are going for a walk and you see a toddler throwing a temper tantrum…reflect on the way that you are thinking about or looking at the parents or the child. When you are watching a new movie and you are meeting that one character that is placed with the intention of eliciting a reaction, ask yourself: “How am I thinking about this character?” or “How might I be viewing this character negatively and why?” When you ask yourself these questions you are becoming more aware of potential stigma and are ready to take the next steps at reducing it.
So how do we address mental health stigma? I believe the first step is becoming aware, as I mentioned previously. If you are becoming more aware of stigma then you are taking a step in the right direction. You are bringing your awareness to the ways in which you may be stigmatizing and are able to understand the effects of this.
What else can you do?
Understand your language. You can become more aware of the language that you use when referring to mental health or individuals with mental illness. Rather than using a mental health descriptor (i.e., “they are depressed” or “they are schizophrenic”) to describe an individual, just refer to them as an individual or as a person with mental illness if you have to.
Show compassion. You can demonstrate compassion to strangers with mental illness but more importantly to your friends and family that may be struggling.
Talk openly. You can speak openly with your friends or family that have been diagnosed with mental illness. By doing this you show that you are open to sharing this experience with them but also willing to educate yourself on what may be going on. You also build up social support for the individual.
Empower. You can also choose to empower those around you as well as yourself. We all experience stigma in one way or another. Whether at home, at work, or out in public. By owning your story and encouraging the same for others you can fight stigma one day and one person at a time.
Stigma is more prevalent than we may think and is present in all aspects of our lives. Whether we are being stigmatized or the other way around. However, the best thing that we can do to facilitate change is to continue to make steps within ourselves by continuing to become educated and educate those around us.