May is Mental Health Awareness Month—the time when a variety of initiatives, media, screenings and other events bring attention to efforts to help reduce the stigma of living with a mental illness. Reducing stigma should not and must not be left to those who have a diagnosis. To truly combat incorrect (and often damaging) stereotypes, those of us who aren’t living with mental illness need to help, too. Theresa Nguyen, the Senior Director of Policy and Programming for Mental Health America, the mental health advocacy group that started Mental Health Awareness Month back in 1949, offers simple ways that everyone can help reduce stigma.
Understand that mental illness is an illness just like any other—and act like it. Nguyen says that when your friend or neighbor has a child who is diagnosed with leukemia or a concussion, we tend to rally around them. We should do the same, she says, when that child has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“Anytime your child or teenager has to go to the hospital is a really scary time. And usually, your community is really supportive and that’s great—except when it’s a mental illness. There’s so much shame around sending your child to a psychiatric hospital,” she says. “So if you know someone in your network who has a child in the psychiatric hospital, support the recovery process the same way you would if it were leukemia or any other disease. Check in. Let them know you care and that this is just like any other illness. Drop off a casserole. Don’t let them hide. It makes such a difference.”
Talk…and listen. Nguyen says that it’s very important for people who may be experiencing mental illness to share their thoughts and feelings, and when they do, for their friends and family members to listen.
“It’s hard to open yourself up and talk about what you are experiencing. The fear that comes with sharing is so profound. But we know that talking is really important and can really help,” she says. “When people talk, you’ll find more and more people will open up and share their experiences—which helps break down stigma. But it’s just as important to have people there to listen without judgment. That helps break down that shame, too.”
It’s Nguyen’s hope that one day we will talk—and listen—about mental illness the same way we do about diabetes or any other chronic disorder. And that, she says, can help us recognize signs and symptoms in individuals when we most have the influence to make change.
“Mental illness, like diabetes, usually starts in the teenage years. So if we are more open to this idea that it is a disease, we’ll learn the early warning signs. That way when they see those signs in someone, or perhaps even in themselves, there won’t be a delay in diagnosis and treatment,” she says. “They can get the help they need early on.”
Choose your words carefully. There are many negative slang words that have creeped into the everyday lexicon that may refer to mental illness. And their continued use helps to perpetuate shame.
“It’s really a huge thing to attend to your words—to be compassionate, kind and thoughtful about the words you use,” says Nguyen. “I think we don’t call people ‘crazy’ or ‘nutjobs’ as often as we used to but we will say, ‘Oh, that guy is schizophrenic,’ or, ‘She’s so OCD.’ It may not seem important, but what it does is put the illness at the epicenter instead of the person. And there’s been quite a bit of research to suggest that when you put the person before the diagnosis—understand this is a person with depression, this is a person who has schizophrenia—you really start to understand those people are not defined by their illness. And that goes a long way towards compassion and understanding.”
Get Involved. Want to do more? Nguyen says there are plenty of opportunities to help within your community. It’s just a matter of getting involved—check out your local Mental Health America chapter to learn more.
“Every single person can do a part,” she says. “We can’t solve the issue of stigma in a single day—or even a single month—but, by working together, we can make a huge difference.”
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