Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health and Illness
We are largely uncomfortable talking about mental health and illness as a society. We fear being judged by others and being discriminated against in society, and we shame ourselves for it. This stigma, or negative stereotype of mental illness, comes from a lack of awareness, understanding, and education. It’s been taught to us from a young age, greatly perpetuated in the media, and has shaped our attitudes toward those with mental illness. In this post, I’ll share why breaking the stigma is crucial, how it’s changed over time, what actions you can take (including in the workplace), and what my experience has been like.
It’s incredibly important to break the stigma so more people, whether for themselves or a loved one, reach out for help when needed. If you have a mental illness, it is valid, it does not change how valuable you are, and it is something that many others experience too. In the US, 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This is something to take seriously and educate ourselves on.
Time for change
The stigma of mental illness has been around for over 1,000 years, with people being imprisoned, tortured, or killed for it. The meaning of “mental illness” has changed over time and across cultures, and anything outside of what a culture considers mentally “normal” has been stigmatized. In recent years, we have come a long way, but many people still believe those with mental illnesses are dangerous, unpredictable, and unreliable. This is especially the case for those with schizophrenia, when in actuality, only 3%-5% of violent acts are attributed to those with a severe mental illness, and it’s much more likely that they’ll be victims of a violent crime than commit one.
It’s time for us to break the stigma by talking more openly about mental illness. There are actionable steps we can take to break it, which can hopefully lead to a more aware, understanding, and educated society.
Actions you can take:
Speak about mental illness as you would speak about physical illness. For example, if you’re talking with a coworker and you’re not feeling well mentally, let them know. You don’t have to talk about things you’re not comfortable with, but if you were in the same situation with a physical ailment and know you would tell them about it, that’s an indication it’s the stigma holding you back.
Bring awareness to the issue and educate others. Depending on how you like to communicate and what others around you are receptive to, make mental health a normal conversation topic. You could share a TED Talk in your group work chat that you found particularly helpful or even schedule a post through your employer’s social media to be shared on a mental health awareness day.
Use words consciously. Be conscious of the words you use, such as saying that someone has “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide.” In this example, the change in wording shows we’re seeing suicide as an illness that caused a death rather than a crime committed. Acceptable words are always in flux, and it’s not necessary to be on top of everything. What’s most important is that you’re open to changing your language if you become aware of it.
Tell others about your experience and what treatments helped you. If you’ve experienced (or are experiencing) a mental illness, it can be scary yet liberating to share what you’ve gone through with others. You may be surprised how many others are experiencing a similar illness or know someone who is. Sharing your experience validates what they’re feeling, and can provide them with resources to get the help they need. It doesn’t have to be in front of the whole organization, but a 1:1 conversation with a coworker can go a long way.
Love yourself and others. Be proud of who you are, what you’ve overcome, and show compassion to others with mental illnesses. Believing in ourselves can be one of the most challenging things to do, but it’s powerful. Believing in others is often an easier feat—but just as important. Be empathetic toward those with mental illnesses, and better yet, be empathetic toward everyone. You never know who is experiencing an illness unless they tell you.
My experience with mental illness
I have mental illnesses that are more accepted than others, but I still face stigma. I have experienced severe depression with suicidal thoughts, severe social anxiety, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. When growing up, people didn’t talk about mental health and illness, so it took a while until I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t “normal.” I learned about others’ experiences and how I related to them through searches online and not from anyone teaching me. Even once I knew how I was feeling wasn’t healthy and could be helped by seeing a doctor, I hid it for months from my loved ones. I feared what they would think of me, worried about what a doctor might say to me, and ashamed of myself, believing I deserved what I was going through. I didn’t want people to fear me or think I was making up how I felt, so it was a while before I told someone and got medical help. If my teachers, family, or friends had talked about mental health and illness growing up, I believe I would’ve recognized my symptoms sooner and been less afraid to seek help.
I’m in a much better place than I was years ago, but there are still days that my emotions can get to me, and my fear of social situations can overtake me. I’m lucky to work in an environment where management and coworkers are open to discussing mental health, though I wish this were the norm. The Center for Workplace Mental Health has a Working Well Toolkit that says we should “strive to create a culture in which mention of depression, anxiety, post-trauma, and other common illnesses become as mentionable as diabetes, hypertension, and migraines.” I feel that where I work, we are close to achieving this. Kalamuna is very understanding of the different situations we’re all experiencing and makes it a priority to ensure we’re not pushed too far out of our comfort zone. When my social anxiety took over, and I had a panic attack because I was afraid of going to an improv-style workshop with the team, my manager wished I had told him sooner that it was making me anxious so he could’ve helped ease my worry. Being met with understanding and compassion made me much more comfortable speaking out in the future
We have a long way to go as a society in terms of understanding mental illness and breaking the stigma, but there are ways we can continue to improve. To educate yourself and others, check out these sites with helpful information, resources, videos, stories, quizzes, and more:
If you're interested in reading more of our mental health series, check out our post on Mental Health for Remote Workers in the Age of COVID as well as our post on how Mental Health Days are Good for You (And Your Organization).