Reducing Mental Health Stigma
By Sara Amundson
I’ve spent so much time talking about and thinking about breaking down stigma for people who experience mental health struggles or disorders. It’s become a normal part of my life.
I realize, however, that it isn’t normal for everyone else. We at Stay Alive Inc. live in this little bubble where we talk about our mental health and accessing resources. We talk about the death of our loved ones and how we don’t want that for others. We want other people to talk as well. Why? It breaks down stigma.
Stigma does not help anyone. We have been afraid to talk about our own mental health struggles because of fear and shame. We have hated ourselves because we’ve been conditioned to believe we are less than people who experience more “neurotypical” lives. We do things differently than other people and we say things that appear funny, strange, or dramatic at times.
If stigma, fear, and shame were not being experienced at such significant rates then we wouldn’t appear funny or strange, we would simply be community members like everyone else.
So, how do we begin to break down stigma? I think it starts here.
First, we talk. We must be willing to talk about the different ways that we experience the world.
Now, I’m not suggesting you put your most personal, intimate, internal thoughts out there for everyone. Unless of course that feels safe or helpful to you, then do so. No, what I am suggesting is that when you feel safe and vulnerable with someone, that you let them in.
There is power in being authentically seen and heard by someone. In order to be authentically seen, we must be willing to be our true selves. Talking is the first step. Talking without hiding and without lying.
You do not need to lie about your mental health disorders and you do not need to lie about your symptoms or the interventions that you use to live well. When you talk about these parts of your lives, you normalize the experience for other community members as well.
Perhaps even more important than to talk is to listen. When someone else is willing to share these experiences with you, listening is the most valuable and loving gift that you can give them.
Validating the experience of others will take you far in your listening. Do not listen to respond. Do not listen to offer solutions or answers. Simply listen because someone chose you to talk to.
In the event that listening becomes triggering or upset to you, be honest with the person. Let them know that although you want to be there to support them, you aren’t bringing your whole self to the conversation today and that you need to create some space. Remind them it isn’t their fault, but rather that the conversation is becoming difficult for you.
Honor, Not Change
Honoring the experience of others can be a difficult step in the journey to reducing stigma. We must honor the traumas and struggles that are self-defined. What is traumatizing to one may not be to someone else, but trauma is only identified by the person experiencing it.
We must honor and not change whatever is going on with others. As a nation we are inundated with social media and news that tells us our experiences are less or more painful than that of others. What that does is it teaches us to be less or more, or that we are not good enough in our simple and honest selves.
When we commit to honoring others, we allow them to be exactly as they are. This isn’t to say that we should not commit to growing and improving, but we allow this to be led by the individual themselves and not others.
A significant step in reducing stigma for mental health is to actually access mental health services! There are struggles in our lives that we cannot solve in isolation. Crippling depression will not fix itself, but accessing a therapist or psychiatrist could surely be helpful. Anxiety will likely not go away if we do not learn interventions for controlling it.
Accessing mental health services has saved my life in so many ways. I don’t give anyone the credibility other than myself. I am the one who has done the hard work, however I have had a lot of supporters along the way. This has included individual and group therapy. It has included mental health medication and developing crisis plans. It once included a hospitalization. I have struggled and I have gotten support and I live really, really well.
These are experiences I once felt so much shame for. I would have never voluntarily outed myself as someone accessing mental health services. Now it is one of my favorite pieces of information to offer people because I know that perhaps it may help them in their path to recovery as well.
If you need support, you should get support. There are many different kinds of therapists and interventions out there. Find what works best for you.
Use kind language
Lastly, use kind language! This is the simplest step in reducing stigma. Do not use language that others people. Do not use words that promote stigma and bias. Avoid using the following words: crazy, psycho, insane, or similar words.
When people offer you the language they want you to use with them, use it. This is the easiest sign of love and respect that you can give people.
Reducing bias and stigma is not an easy feat. It will be a lifelong pursuit, but you can do your part. Ultimately this will make the experience you have with mental health and the experience that other people have so much easier and that is extremely important.