October 10th was World Mental Health Day, and the month of October is often considered a month for reform, education, and advocacy related to mental health. These annual times of reflection certainly contribute to decreasing mental health stigma, but there is far more to accomplish.
Great leaps of progress have been made to destigmatize mental health in recent years. Educational programs have drastically expanded, and many secondary education health classes cover basic mental health information. Information and resources for therapy and other treatments are readily available online. It’s more common for workplaces to offer mental health and wellness days. One would assume, with all this progress, that mental health would be an easy, commonplace discussion. And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly easier than it used to be, but there is much further to go before mental health is stigma free.
If you were to ask someone to describe typical mental health problems, they would likely be able to describe anxiety, depression and other well-known conditions briefly. But it’s much harder to find someone who can explain, without prejudice, conditions such as bipolar, panic, or personality disorders. As we have shifted away from a total, encompassing mental health stigma, we have labeled certain mental health conditions as “reasonable” or “acceptable.” Some mental health deficits are “reasonable,” but others are outlandish, or mean people are “crazy.”
And sometimes, conditions such as depression and anxiety aren’t considered “serious” enough to be “real” mental conditions. As we’ve destigmatized, we’ve also invalidated. People with even the mildest cases of depression, anxiety, etc., are still sick and deserve to be treated as such. And here lies one of several problems with continuing mental health stigma. We must find a balance between destigmatizing mental illness and continuing to take it seriously. If someone broke their arm in a car accident, they are taken seriously, and treatment is administered swiftly. At the same time, they usually aren’t blamed for their broken arm; their arm broke due to environmental circumstances, and they didn’t break their arm on purpose.
On the other hand, those with a mental health condition are significantly more likely to be blamed for their particular problem, or not taken seriously. They are told to “get over it,” “just be happy,” “or stop complaining” because someone else has it worse. Health Direct, an Australian government website, lists examples of mental health stigma: “A person with anxiety may be labeled as being cowardly rather than having an illness. People with depression may be told to ‘snap out of it.’ People living with schizophrenia are incorrectly described as having a ‘split personality.’ These are all examples of stigma against people with mental illness.”
Mental health stigma does more than exclude and invalidate the mentally ill; it directly affects those who are suffering, and may convince them they don’t have a real problem. I felt this effect of mental health stigma when I first started seeking treatment. I started going to therapy my freshman year of high school and struggled for several years even admitting I had anxiety. I had truly and totally convinced myself that I was going to therapy because I was a bit stressed, not because I had some chemical imbalance out of my control. I put off being evaluated by a psychiatrist to discuss medication for years, all because I let stigma get the best of me. I had convinced myself that my anxiety wasn’t real. Even recently, as I’ve discussed with my therapist the possibility of having seasonal depression, I’ve had to remind myself that seasonal depression is real, and it is not just “being sad.” Seasonal depression, anxiety, and so many more are conditions that affect people every single day.
So, with that being said, what can you do to fight mental health stigma? If you’re dealing with “self-stigma,” here are some reminders. You are worthy of treatment, diagnoses, and all resources available. Just because you don’t have the most severe case of whatever condition doesn’t mean your suffering and emotions aren’t valid. You are more than just your illness. If you’re trying to defeat stigma in your family or community, learn the facts and figures about mental illness. For example, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced mental health issues in 2021, and 1 in 20 U.S. adults had serious mental illness. These aren’t small numbers, and there is likely someone in your life that falls into them. Also, call out stigma when you see it. Correct the use of negative stereotypes and vocabulary. Don’t let those suffering be unfairly blamed, ridiculed and excluded. If you or a family member is thinking of suicide, call the Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988. There are both text and call options. If you or someone else is having a medical emergency, call 911. For more general mental health information, go to https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health or https://www.samhsa.gov/mental-health.