The stigma of mental illness forces those who are suffering to hide their own struggles. Destigmatizing mental health problems makes it easier for people to access support, find work and housing, and live socially rewarding lives.
The Increasing Prevalence of Mental Health Challenges
Mental health disorders are prevalent and are becoming increasingly so. Consider these staggering numbers from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Institute of Mental Health:
- Approximately 40 million adults over age 18 (18% of the population) suffer from anxiety disorders
- 25.1% of youth ages 13 to 18 suffer from anxiety disorders
- Less than 40% of those with anxiety disorders receive treatment
- About 21 million adults (8.4% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year
- 17% of youth ages 12 to 17 and young adults between 18 and 25 suffered at least one major depressive episode last year
- Scarcely 40% of adolescents who’ve experienced major depressive episodes receive treatment for their mental health problems
Sadly, rates of serious mental illness have been on the rise. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a 13% increase in mental health conditions worldwide.
Then the pandemic hit.
In 2022, the WHO released a report calling on all countries to ramp up their mental health service as COVID-19 gave rise to a 25% increase in anxiety and depression in its first year alone. Clearly, there’s an urgent need for all of us—governments, organizations, and individuals—to do more to support people facing mental health struggles.
What is Mental Health Stigma?
Stigma stems from negative and unjustified societal attitudes toward a person or group of people. When labeling, stereotyping, and profiling are used to reduce a group of people to a generalized set of beliefs, it allows society to make quick judgments about members of that group. These generalizations and judgments strip people of their individuality and their humanity.
Mental health stigma is perpetuated by individuals, families, society, and the media. Hurtful, offensive, and dismissive language is used to describe people with mental health conditions and their behavior. It’s not uncommon for people with mental health challenges to be told they are lazy, crazy, or unmotivated, or that they need to try harder or snap out of it.
Mentally ill people are portrayed in the news as dangerous, unstable, and violent. Although people with mental illness are more likely to be attacked or harm themselves than other people, our lack of awareness and education allows us to continue believing falsehoods about a huge percentage of the population.
Such perceptions are not always verbalized directly but are implied through words and actions. Even when seeking professional help, people with mental illness are made to feel as though they are unreliable, unable to accurately assess situations, and unable to make decisions about their own lives. They are defined by their mental illness rather than being seen as a whole person.
Further, they are disempowered by the invalidation of their feelings and concerns and made to feel ashamed for having a mental illness.
The stigma of mental illness lets these negative attitudes and stereotypes pervade public perception and increasingly stacks the deck against those with mental health disabilities. It:
- Increases the severity of mental health symptoms
- Discourages people from seeking help
- Makes them feel alone and misunderstood
- Creates feelings of shame and hopelessness
- Increases thoughts of suicide
- Traps people in a cycle of illness that is hard to escape
Destigmatization is critical. If we want to learn to change the way mental illness—and those who suffer from it—are viewed, we need to change how we look at and talk about it.
4 Ways to Destigmatize Mental Health Issues
The more we bring the conversation about mental health care into our personal lives and public spheres, the more easily we can dismantle the shroud of shame and isolation created by mental illness stigma.
1. Have Open Conversations About Mental Health
We can open conversations about mental health by talking about our own experiences. If we are honest about what we are going through, we make it easier for others to open up about their own mental health journey.
2. Extend Compassion to Those With Mental Illness
Many people who suffer from mental disorders would benefit from having a friend who cares about them, understands what they’re going through, and is willing to sit with them in their suffering. Go for a walk together, share a pot of tea, and reach out over the phone and text. Don’t take it personally if your friend cancels plans or doesn’t feel up for getting together. Keep trying and be gentle.
3. Raise Mental Health Awareness
We can change public perception of mental illness by becoming mental health advocates and raising awareness of mental health issues in whatever arena we have a voice.
We can talk about it on social media, advocate for mental health education and benefits in our workplaces, write letters to policymakers to try to influence public policy decisions, and write letters to the editors of our local papers, debunking popular misconceptions about mental illness.
Mental Health Awareness Week is a wonderful time to draw as much attention to the issue of stigma as possible.
4. Choose Words Carefully
Words are some of our most dangerous weapons because we underestimate the power we hold when we wield them. We can train ourselves and others to speak more conscientiously by:
- Avoiding dismissive language when speaking about our own mental health or that of others
- Not using mental health terms in a derogatory way
- Speaking about our mental illnesses as something we have, not something we are
- Gently pointing out to others when they have used hurtful language without meaning to
Mental Health Awareness: Destigmatization is Possible
Mental illnesses are extremely common and should not be seen as a sign of weakness. When people feel comfortable asking for and receiving help, various treatment methods can help them combat their symptoms and overcome the hopelessness and isolation associated with mental illness. We all have a role to play in destigmatizing mental health and supporting each other.
If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, contact Oasis TMS today. We’d love to help.
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