By Kayt Sukel
Stamping out stigma is one of the best things we can do to help people with mental illness succeed and thrive—yet, there is work to be done. We’ve all encountered cultural stereotypes and negative media representations around mental illness. A violent episode reported in the news about one mentally ill person may make people think everyone struggling with mental illness is violent, when in actuality such violence is unusual. Ignorance, fear and discrimination set in, solidifying stigma in its place and holding us back from making real progress in the effort to help the mentally ill.
Studies about the impact of stigma reveal its ill effects: People with mental illness are often denied good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and social support. Stigma around mental illness can also lead to shame, making people avoid seeking out the help and medical treatment they need. Yet there is evidence that interventions against stigma can lead to changes in societal behavior and less discrimination against the mentally ill. Through daily interventions and conscious disruptions, we can make a difference for our loved ones, ourselves, our patients, or anyone struggling with mental illness of any kind, from depression or anxiety to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Here are five things you can do right now to stop stigma in its tracks. The following tips come from the social media community of This Is My Brave (TIMB), a nonprofit with the mission of ending mental-health stigma through storytelling, whose founder Jennifer Marshall has been featured on our blog.
1. Educate and enlighten. “Fear comes from not knowing, and not knowing can always be solved with education,” says TIMB storyteller Hillary Marotta. “If you can help someone understand mental illness a little better, you’re helping to break down stigma.”
2. Start with your kids. “Talk with kids about mental health in the same way you talk about physical health,” offers mental health advocate Eliza Williamson. “Part of healthy bodies includes a healthy mind, and we owe it to children to give them the tools to take care of their brains, foster emotional resiliency, and ask for help if they need it.”
3. Be aware of lingo. “It’s important to promote person-first language and call out stigmatizing language or phrases as soon as you hear it,” says TIMB community member Ryann Tanap. “Unfortunately, many of us are desensitized to the use of such words and phrases. Some red flag words include: psycho, schizo, crazy, insane. When this type of language is used in conversation, it is often done inappropriately. Yet these words can be offensive, especially to those who have had to live with a mental illness or may be fearful of disclosing details about their mental health journey.”
4. Refuse to be ashamed. “Shame is the internalized version of stigma,” says TIMB alumna Traci Barr. “Maybe if more people refuse to be ashamed, stigma would die on the vine. Because it can’t exist in a vacuum.”
5. Share a story. “The most important thing a person can do to fight stigma is to share their story,” says Jennifer Marshall, TIMB’s cofounder and executive director. “When we are able to tell others our stories—whether it’s publicly, through an organization like This Is My Brave, or privately with one or two people close to you—we can let go of the secrecy and remove the burden of shame. Through this process we’re able to foster empathy and connection with the important people in our lives.”