For years, our culture has swept mental illness under the rug. People speak about it in hushed tones – if they speak about it all. Individuals who struggle with mental illness and their family members shamefully keep their secret, scared of the judgments they would face if word were to get out about their “condition.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “stigma” as a “set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” When it comes to mental health challenges, this definition is absolutely spot-on. In my experience as an online psychotherapist, I have worked with countless individuals whose challenges with mental health have been endlessly compounded by the stigma they face on a daily basis. I have made it my mission in life to help our culture end the stigma surrounding mental illness, but I can’t do it alone.
The Danger Of The Stigma
People who are struggling with mental illness often find that the stigma around their condition affects them both externally and internally. Externally, they must face the judgment of their friends, peers, and even their family members who simply do not understand the challenges they are facing. Internally, they must face their own judgments of mental illness that society has taught them to hold. They may not seek the counseling or therapy they need to overcome their situation for fear of being viewed as a “crazy person.” After all, crazy people are the only ones who need therapy, right? Wrong.
The truth is that almost anyone can benefit from one of therapy sessions, both online and in-person. The other truth is that countless people deny themselves the help they need for fear of being associated with the stigma. Not only is the stigma an unfair and uneducated judgment; it is preventing men and women from seeking the assistance they need and deserve.
Overcoming The Stigma
The stigma around mental illness has been built up over many years, and ending it won’t happen overnight. It will take the dedicated and conscious efforts of people all over the country. Here are a few simple ways you can help:
1. Watch Your Wording
When you talk about someone who suffers from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other challenges, what words do you use? If the words “crazy person,” “weirdo,” and the like are part of your vocabulary, it’s time to change that. They aren’t crazy; they are merely battling with things that are contributing to their mental unrest. At the core, they are still “normal” people like you and me.
2. Be Kind (Always)
Everyone is fighting a journey you know nothing about. The person who broke down crying at work could have a sibling who was just diagnosed with cancer. The driver who cut you off could have been late to pick up his child from school (for the third time that week). It is impossible to know the true reasons behind someone’s behavior; try not to judge that which you do not (and cannot) fully understand.
3. Lend A Listening Ear
People who suffer from mental illness often feel isolated and misunderstood. Those who do not understand the challenges they are facing my trivialize their issues, saying “I’m sorry you had a tough day,” or “don’t worry, it will be better next time.” Though apparently innocent, these words may contribute to the illness and the associated feeling of isolation. Instead, make it a point to really listen to what someone says they are suffering from. Better yet, ask them what you can do to help.
4. Don’t Be An Idle Bystander
Even if you didn’t realize it at the time, you’ve probably seen the stigma in action or witnessed events that may contribute to someone developing a mental illness later on. Bullying as well as snarky, judgmental, and degrading comments about certain individuals and their situations perpetuate the cycle. When this happens, idly standing by and letting it run its course can be just as detrimental as actively participating in the bullying. Bullies tend to look for easy targets; if you stand up for someone and offer the resistance they need, the bullies will probably take their anger elsewhere. A simple gesture like this on your end could make a world of difference in the victim’s life.
5. Encourage People To Seek The Help They Need
Being trusted enough for someone to open up to you about their challenges is a valuable – and critical – role. If someone has chosen you to be their confidant, you will play a vital role in helping them avoid succumbing to the stigma. If the concept of seeking help from a licensed psychotherapist comes up, it is imperative that you be totally supportive of this concept. Don’t dismiss it by saying that they’re not “crazy,” so they must not need to talk to a therapist. Listen with an open ear, and help them weigh their pros and cons. If they think that talking to a therapist might be beneficial, help them find one who will be a good fit.
Help Me End The Stigma!
The stigma around mental illness has been held for far too long, and it’s time to bring an end to it. I sincerely and deeply appreciate all of the efforts, big and small, that you put into helping me on this mission. I consider myself truly blessed to do what I do, and I am endlessly grateful to my family, my friends, and (of course) my clients for supporting me on my path towards helping people overcome their emotional and psychological challenges – and breaking down the stigma in the process.