How to put an end to stigma

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One in four adults experiences a mental illness. As COVID-19 continues, mental health issues — like anxiety and depression, which are sometimes brought on or exacerbated by challenging life events, including job loss or financial troubles — are expected to rise. At the same time, our culture sometimes expresses negativity about people with mental illness in ways that may prevent those who need help from getting it.

That's why this is a great time to relearn how we talk about mental illness in ways that overcome the stigma and encourage treatment.

Whether you are dealing with mental illness or know or love someone who is; whether the mental health issues are new or longstanding; and regardless of what type of mental health challenges you have — depression, anxiety, substance abuse, attention-deficit disorder, autism, or others — it's important to listen for stigma, raise awareness, and make changes to encourage fair treatment for all. We all need to be a part of the solution to counteract stigma.

Here's a quick guide to what you can do:

Listen and correct. We are all influenced by family, friends, the media, and our culture. Harmful language is everywhere, and it's very powerful. How we choose to talk about something — to ourselves and to others — can sometimes change how we think about it. Listen for potentially hurtful language and make a commitment to adjusting your own words and working through discomfort to correct others.

For instance, you might hear someone say, "he's bipolar" or "she's schizophrenic." A mental health diagnosis is not the complete sum of anyone's abilities or personality. Labeling in this way minimizes all of the other qualities they have.

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At the same time, to ignore or fail to mention a mental illness makes it seem shameful. The best way to describe someone who has a mental illness is like this: "he has a bipolar disorder" or "she has schizophrenia." And say she or he "has a mental illness" instead of "is mentally ill."

Avoid using terms like crazy or insane, which can be hurtful when they refer to someone who's coping with mental illness. Clinical terms, like those above, are more accurate. Normalizing them diminishes the stigma that has accompanied them.

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Be careful not to falsely assign clinical terms to yourself or others. For instance, people who are especially particular might purport to have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). You've heard people offhandedly say, "Oh, that's just my OCD." Using clinical terms to describe quirky behavior diminishes the very real and serious struggle of coping with the real thing. You would never claim to have cancer or diabetes when you don't. It's helpful to think of mental diagnoses in the same way.

Similarly, people sometimes imagine that people with mental illness are responsible for their diagnosis or could "get over it, if only they tried." Imagine how hurtful it would be to say the same thing to someone with cancer. Move to recognize mental illnesses as legitimate health concerns with important life-sustaining treatments.

If you are the one who has mental illness, be sure to change the language you use with yourself, too. Everyone has challenges. Far too few people get the help they need. By recognizing your limitations, you are moving in the right direction.

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By using stigma-reducing language and politely teaching it to others, you are already making a big impact to fight stigma. Note that big transgressions, like an inaccurate stereotype in a newspaper or news program, might require a big correction. Don't hesitate to take on cultural institutions or other powerful organizations to point out their mistake.

Learn and share. Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness, inaccurate information, and a fear of the unknown. When you encounter a person with a diagnosis that's unfamiliar to you, commit to doing 10 minutes worth of research. You will likely learn the details of the condition and which treatment/s may be helpful. Let what you know about the person's other qualities mix in with what you have learned, so you come away with a complete picture of the person. Share what you learn to bring about a positive shift in how we all treat others.

Act with compassion. People with mental illness may interact with the world around them in ways that are not typical. Show your compassion, facilitate their getting the help they need, continue to include them in your life, and act as an advocate to encourage others to do the same.

When we each adjust our language and behavior and expect others to do so as well, our actions will add up to significant cultural change. Together, we can put an end to stigma, inspire those with mental illness to view their condition just as they would any other health challenge, and get everyone the treatment they need to restore wellness.

Rachel Darby, PMHNP-BC, is a member of the psychiatric medical team at United Counseling Service in Bennington.


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