Mind | Written by: Valerie Sizelove

Real Talk: The Negative Stigma Around Mental Health

When my new 20-year-old, bubbly coworker revealed to me that she was bipolar-depressive with anxiety, her words felt weird to me. As someone who’s suffered with those same conditions my whole life, you’d think it would have relieved me to meet someone who shares my experience.

But my mind instead instantly went to, “No, she doesn’t. There’s no way,” and then, after working with her all day, it changed to “Is she really telling the truth about her mental health? Could she actually suffer the same thing as me? Doesn’t she have to be exaggerating, to impress me?”

That night, as I complained to my husband about my coworker’s bubbly personality and speculated about her “claims” to mental health disorders, he pointed out a very important observation. I was being a major b*#@%. It was none of my business how unwell this innocent girl was.

It caught me off guard when my husband called me out, and I was a little uncomfortable with myself. As our conversation continued, I tried to figure out what had made me regard this girl in such a mean way. She hadn’t been bad to me in any way; she was actually really nice.

I suddenly felt very guilty.

I based my actions on a stigma I didn’t even realize I had—a stigma surrounding the truthfulness and extent of people’s disclosed mental health.

For some reason, I was critical of this girl’s mental health conditions, and I even overanalyzed her behaviors in order to measure her illness throughout the day.

This time, my husband was right (I guess he can win just this once). I was treating this girl in an unfair manner by deciding for myself whether she was mentally ill, and furthermore, why did I even care?

Perhaps, it has something to do with the beliefs of my family and the societal stigmas on mental wellness that are so prevalent thanks to today’s social media.

But, with the click of a button or touch of a screen, movements to raise awareness and respect for mental health can now also easily be spread among millions of people.

We, as a Population, Are Afraid to Talk Mental Health

Mental illnesses affect two times the amount of people in the U.S. as Diabetes, with 18.5% of the population experiencing mental illness in any given year.

The term “mental illness” is a term describing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more. These mental health issues are often due to chemical imbalances, early life psychological trauma and stressful life situations in adulthood.

A study published by the Embo Report explains that about half of those who develop depression will show symptoms by age 14 while three-fourths of depression patients will show symptoms by age 24.

It’s a lifelong condition for most, and sadly, there’s often a long delay between patients first showing symptoms of mental unwellness and finally getting help.

Mental illness is a serious set of conditions that affects a significant amount of the population, yet we are afraid to talk about it.

Where Do Mental Health Stigmas Come From?

There’s a whole history of discrimination and mistreatment of mental health patients in the U.S. mental healthcare system. But let’s start with the word “stigma” itself.

The word originated in Ancient Greece, where it was physically branded on criminals and slaves to mark them from the rest of society. Today, the word “stigma” (thankfully) holds a much more subtle role in American society, yet it still shapes American cultural beliefs.

Throughout the history of human population, those displaying mental health disorders were studied, tortured and even killed in efforts to exorcise “demons” and “evil.” So-called psychiatrists and psychologists of the old days seemed to fear those with mental health problems

Conditions have improved, but there is still a stigma against mental wellness and mental health awareness today. A large part of today’s mental health stigma stems from society’s refusal to talk about mental illness or believe those who say they suffer from it.

Negative Effects of Mental Health Stigmas

Society’s treatment of individuals who struggle with mental health issues has profound effects on their well-being. These are some, but not all, of the issues people with mental illness may experience from as a result of being stereotyped and stigmatized:

  • Lowered self-esteem or feeling abnormal, broken, etc.
  • Work and educational opportunities affected because of low self-esteem and judgment from potential employers
  • Relationships affected – Friends and family may not know how to handle your mental health
  • Failure to recognize the illness and seek appropriate help

So, Let’s Start Talking About It

I’ve been diagnosed with a few mental health issues over the years. In my mental health talk experience, my family usually tunes out or speaks out against their belief in mental illness when I tell them about a new diagnosis.

It also seems like strangers are caught off guard whenever mental health comes up during conversation.

When you meet someone for the first time and you’re talking about yourself, introducing yourself and you’re really getting to know each other, it can often feel like you need to share this part of your identity, your mental health. It’s a part of who you are.

But often it’s a gamble because of our inability as a society to talk about it. Why do disclose your mental health when you know that there are stigmas in society about mental illness?

This person could either be familiar with mental illness (chances are they have faced it themselves), or they could immediately form judgment about you because you are “disabled” in their mind.

Every time someone who struggles with mental illness discloses their conditions, or “comes out,” they gamble their reputation and opportunities.

My own family holds strong stigmas surrounding mental health, strongly claiming that medications can’t fix your mind and that “it’s not mental illness, it’s a result of something in life.”

All of the messages sent to me by them throughout my life have shaped the way I view mental illness in others, and even in myself.

Maybe, if we would’ve talked more openly about the reality of mental illness, some of those family stigmas wouldn’t have been instilled in me. Maybe I’d have more self-confidence. That’s why talking about mental health is so important.

Movements Are Getting People to Talk About Mental Health

But that’s changing today with movements across the country promoting conversation about mental wellness. The social media explosion plays a huge role in today’s mental health movements, with the ability to spread information through powerful images and words to millions of people in an instant.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) organizes Mental Health Awareness Week each year during the first week of October, when activists really kick up the messages that talking about mental health is ok. This yearly anniversary of mental health awareness has helped the country start talking more.

The intersectionality of background, race, gender and identity in mental health issues is recognized during Minority Mental Health Month, in July of each year. This government program was organized to increase awareness of the limited availability of care to people from some marginalized backgrounds.

These are a few examples of mental health awareness movements going on today:

  • CureStigma. This program is promoted by NAMI and aims to fight the promotion of mental health stigma throughout society. The campaign speaks about one in five Americans being affected by mental illness, and how stigma keeps many of them from receiving the mental healthcare they need.
  • The Movement for Global Health (MGMH).  This is a worldwide mental health awareness organization that works to increase access to mental healthcare for all populations across the globe.
  • Each Mind Matters. California’s own mental health awareness program. This organization promotes the sharing of mental health information through social media to help increase access of mental healthcare to the population.
  • Social Media #hashtag campaigns. With the ability to create hashtags that spread ideas quickly through the internet, social media platforms have been spreading various mental health awareness movements, such as #HereForYou on Instagram, which aimed to show loved ones with mental illness that friends and family care about their struggles.

Solutions for Mental Health Stigmas

Mental health stigmas put a huge damper on the lives of those who struggle with mental illness. We all make mistakes, and we all have judged someone at least once in our lives.  The more we talk about these serious health conditions and the mistakes we make in judgment, the more mental health will become normalized.

These are a few ways that mental health stigmas can be eliminated:

  • Personal empowerment for those with mental illness, through positive talk with friends, family and therapists.
  • More people with mental illness disclosing their conditions, helping the conditions become more normalized in society, as they should be.
  • The spread of awareness through social media movements—in a world full of far media reach.
  • Advocates of mental health awareness should never suggest that illness is one’s fault or make a patient feel like a victim; instead, they should be empowering.

As stigmas begin to lift from society (as I think they will), people will never stop assigning stereotypes. It’s unavoidable to pass judgment on another human being. It’s part of who we are.

Hopefully, with more talk about mental health, judgment in this vulnerable area of mental health will dissipate and the world will recognize mental illness just like it recognizes the widespread presence of conditions like cancer and heart disease.

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