According to the World Health Organization, one million people die from suicide every year. This of course does not represent all of those with mental disorders, as the great majority of people with mental disorders do not take their own lives. However, mental illness, even in 2020, personally affecting 1 out of every 5 people (according to the National Institute of Mental Health), largely continues to be a silent epidemic. Much of this stems from the inherent shame mental illness brings. Unlike physical maladies which can be talked about openly without fear of judgment, and which only bring empathy and concern, mental maladies are not well understood by the general public and are more likely to evoke negative feelings towards the sufferer. Many people still believe that those with mental disorders are weak, faking, or just looking for pity — that if they really wanted to change, they could. Of course, nobody feels this way about someone with cancer, arthritis, or a broken limb. I believe a lot of the stigma towards mental illness also stems from people’s general terror over the possibility of experiencing it, themselves. It’s pretty distressing to think that your own mind could turn on you and invisibly wreck your life. So how can people with mental disorders, their allies, and mental health professionals help to fight this stigma? Luckily, there are many ways to get involved.
Don’t be glib when talking about mental health topics. Saying “I’m so bipolar” when you change your mind or “This is so depressing” when something doesn’t go your way is dismissive of and disrespectful towards those who actually deal with these conditions. Mental disorders result in a decreased quality of life. They are not personality quirks or shallow traits that come and go.
Be open about your own struggles. Talking about your own feelings and experiences (in a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable) helps to normalize them for yourself and others. Get professional help if you feel it would be beneficial for you. Doing so can motivate others to be open about their own struggles and more likely to seek professional help.
Watch your self-talk. Make sure you do not tell yourself negative things about yourself such as “I’m crazy”, “I’m an awful person”, “Why am I like this?”, etc. Be gentle with yourself, build yourself up, and you’re more likely to do the same for others.
Educate yourself about mental illness. Learn that mental health diagnoses are common and that many people will struggle with mental disorders at some point in their lives. Learn the common triggers, risk factors, and protective factors. Learn the options available to those with mental illness.
Emphasize the connection between physical and mental health. No one stigmatizes physical problems. However, the link between physical and mental health cannot be denied at this point. You cannot have one without the other. Attending to physical problems often necessitates attending to one’s mental health. For example, headaches or body aches are often due to anxiety, fatigue is often due to depression, and insomnia is often due to bipolar disorder.
Focus on people as people, first. People’s mental illnesses shouldn’t define them. Don’t expect, for example, that everyone with bipolar disorder will feel, think, or act the same way or that they all have the same needs. Be careful in your language, as well. Instead of saying “an addict”, say “someone who struggles with addiction”. Instead of saying “a schizophrenic”, say “a person with schizophrenia”. That centers their humanity front-and-center instead of their diagnosis.
Donate time or money to relevant organizations/causes. Organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a 24-hour crisis hotline, or your local domestic violence shelter and free community mental health clinic are worthy causes.
Don’t be judgmental about medication. It is common nowadays for people to demonize psychotropic medications in favor of homeopathic remedies or no substitute at all. While there can be downsides to taking medications, many people depend on medication in order to live a normal life. Never encourage someone to get off their medication without speaking to their psychiatrist. Realize not everybody is on medication for their whole lives and most are eventually able to slowly wean off of them with their doctor’s guidance. Additionally, some people get value out of therapy only after starting meds that relax them enough to be able to concentrate.
The battle to de-stigmatize mental disorders is not new, and there has certainly been progress made. However, there is much more to be done on this score, and the war has not yet been won. It will take those who care enough about the issue to continue to advocate, educate, learn, discuss, and donate what they’re able in order to make lasting improvement.