Mental Health Stigma: Fast Facts and How to Help

Since May is Mental Health Month, I decided to write about what I see as the biggest issue facing people who struggle with mental health issues today: stigma.

It’s true that we’re learning more every year about mental health issues and how to treat them. And well-known personalities including Larry King, George Stephanopoulos, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Rowling, and Sheryl Crow (to name just a few) have opened up about their own experiences with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and have urged that this topic be brought further into the light.

However, there’s still a definite stigma attached to mental health—one that usually isn’t present with more “physical” illnesses like cancer or diabetes. And that stigma has been hurting many, many Americans for decades. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds aren’t getting the help they need and are living lives overshadowed by fear, anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and much more. (And in extreme cases, they’re even committing suicide.) With one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder each year, the importance of addressing, reducing, and eventually erasing mental health stigma shouldn’t be ignored.

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on why people don’t get help and what can be done to lift the stigma.

Why people don’t get help:

  • I think I’m alone. Because it isn’t common for people who are being treated for issues like depression and anxiety to “go public” with their stories, sufferers often mistakenly believe that they are one of only a small group of people who have felt this way.
  • I don’t want to be judged. It’s no surprise that people would want to avoid attracting hurtful labels, including: crazy, lunatic, nut job, wacko, psycho, etc. Our society’s tendency to describe sufferers of mental illnesses in negative terms like these is extremely destructive because it creates shame where there should be none.
  • I don’t want to admit that something is wrong. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to admit to yourself—let alone others—that you aren’t in control and that you can’t “handle” things on your own. Making this admission can be a huge blow to your pride and self-esteem.
  • I honestly don’t realize that I need help. Diseases like depression and anxiety don’t just pop up overnight. Often, they are the result of months, years, or even decades of stress and negative circumstances. For instance, if someone has a high-pressure job, he or she might write off mounting anxiety as “normal.” People often don’t realize that the scale has tipped from “normal” to “needing help.”
  • I just don’t feel up to it. Unfortunately, the very nature of mental health disorders can often make it difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they need. For instance, since depression affects your energy levels, patients might literally not have the will to call the doctor, make an appointment, and go.
  • I don’t want to take medication. Many people are either fearful of taking medication or too proud to do so (e.g., “I can handle this on my own.”). Alternatively, many prospective patients may be reluctant to take medication because of other health implications, such as a desire to avoid negative side effects. Furthermore, many young people especially are resistant to medication because they don’t want to be teased, labeled, or bullied by their peers. (I’m sure the same thing happens among some groups of adults, too.)

What we can do to lift the stigma:

  • If you have a success story, share it! It is one of my greatest hopes that more people who have experienced issues like depression and anxiety will become less reluctant—even eager!—to share their stories. In a perfect world, I envision our society congratulating and honoring people who have battled and conquered these mental illnesses, just as we currently (and rightly!) celebrate those who have survived cancer. If there’s one thing I have learned from sharing my own story with others, it’s that there are so many other people “like me”—people who have felt absolutely sick, miserable, and hopeless due to depression and anxiety, have gotten the help they needed, and have gone on to live successful and happy lives. I believe that if more people talked about their success stories, the truth about mental health issues would quickly come to the forefront, and the stigma would begin to recede. Most importantly, all of these “success stories” could serve as a vital source of hope to those who might currently feel hopeless.
  • Learn the truth about mental illness. If you don’t have personal experience with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, learn more about them. Make sure that you, personally, are not buying into myths such as “if you’re feeling depressed, you should be able to tough it out.” Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you will understand how these diseases affect the body, and so that you’ll be more likely to recognize them in yourself and in your loved ones.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental of others. If someone in your life is suffering from a mental health issue, do everything you can to be helpful. Let the other person know that you’re on his or her side and that you want to help. Depending on the relationship, you might offer physical help—such as running errands or cooking meals on a bad day, or accompanying the person to medical appointments—or emotional support. At the very least, always strive to be sympathetic and reassuring. Remember, no one chooses to be depressed or anxious.
  • Turn the conversation in a positive direction. In some ways, this step is the most important of all. Whenever you have the opportunity, turn the conversation about mental illness in a positive direction. When appropriate, correct misconceptions about these issues. Always do your best to share truthful information. And even if it’s uncomfortable, I urge you not to shy away from this topic. As long as people don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away.
  • Get help if you need it. Yes, this can be incredibly scary. But I promise, you are not alone. And you can experience a positive future no matter how you are feeling right now. For your own sake, as well as for your friends and family, don’t let fears of being seen as “weak” or “sick” hold you back. I promise, addressing this illness is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself. And please, please—if you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out as soon as possible. You can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.
  • Don’t forget your medication. …when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness, that is! Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are essential tools for recovery in most cases. Yes, it’s true that some individuals overuse and abuse them, but the same thing can be said of any medication. Make sure to never, ever belittle a particular drug or those who take it. In my opinion, doing so is every bit as insensitive and judgmental as making fun of or criticizing someone with cancer or heart disease for taking the required and/or recommended medications.

I truly do believe that it’s possible for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more illnesses to feel comfortable sharing their stories and getting the help they need. But that will happen only through a grassroots movement. So please, make an effort to learn the truth about mental health issues so that you’re part of the stigma solution instead of the problem.

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