The problem with the stigma around mental illness is huge! It stops too many people from getting help early when it’s most effective. With a little extra knowledge, you and I, as professionals can help challenge the stigma, prevent a great deal of suffering and help more people live richer, healthier lives.
Mental Health Issues Are More Common than Most People Think
Mental illness is as prevalent in the U.S. as people diagnosed with cancer. One in five adults suffers from mental illness in any given year, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The cost of unchecked mental illness – especially depression – is terribly high. The second leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24 is suicide. Behavior addictions, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse impair millions of people, some even before they are teenagers.
Mental health issues can be life threatening, but they don’t have to be. The important thing is to address the illness early on.
There’s a terrible cost to the stigma about asking for help. It keeps too many from learning how to recover mental health while the issues are the most manageable.
The (Too-) High Cost of the Stigma Around Mental Illness
You may work with patients suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism or a phobia. About one in 25 adults suffers illness severe enough to interfere with life activities. But many more struggle with worry, self-esteem or troubling thoughts and emotions in near-invisible ways. Too often, it takes an emergency or a loss of life to get people to act.
The first sign that someone needs help dealing with a mental health issue probably won’t happen in the therapist’s office. It’s going to come out in the real world, in familiar ways:
- “Oh, I don’t need help, I’m strong enough. I can do it on my own.”
- “You’re weak if you ask for help.”
- “People will think I’m crazy if I go to therapy.”
- “In my family, I was taught that you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
- “I want to handle this on my own.”
- “People will think I’m a failure.”
- “My problems are not big enough.”
- “I don’t know what to do.”
This is the stigma talking. These expressions challenge us as therapists to help people recognize stigma (negative beliefs around mental health issues) when they see it.
We can help teach our clients to foster new attitudes of compassion, openness and acceptance toward mental health issues. Too many people don’t get help because they dismiss the problem, don’t know what action to take, or are too ashamed to ask. It does not have to be this way.
How to Take a Stand for Mental Health: Simple Ways to Fight the Stigma
What can we as mental health professionals do to raise awareness of negative attitudes about mental illness?
First, we need to challenge the idea that “normal people shouldn’t need therapy.”
Then we need to stand up for the idea that seeking counseling or therapy is just good self-care — it’s not only for people in crisis. It’s for each of us, any time we want to give ourselves the gift of wellness.
We can turn attention to the importance of mental health, and join with those who call for openness about mental illness without shame. Many celebrities have shown the way by lending their voices in interviews and on social media (Kristin Bell, Carrie Fisher, Wayne Brady, to name a few). Professionals including the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, are turning their focus to emotional well being, making it an issue they promote and advocate publicly.
We can share what they say.
On our own, we can promote the idea that seeking therapy is actually not a sign of weakness, but of strength. It takes more courage to go to therapy and deal with the issues than it does to turn away from it.
We can foster a better attitude toward mental health issues and those with mental illness, and be more open about our own needs when the time comes.
Helping Change the Conversation Around Mental Health
Imagine living in a world where mental health and physical health are equally important. If you have a sore throat you go to the doctor because you want that to get better. If you’ve struggled with feeling depressed or anxious, or with panic attacks, or if some difficult issues happened in your life, you would find it just as easy to get help.
Like a cold or the flu, depression, anxiety, or any mental health condition isn’t something people choose. It’s something people have. There is no reason that caring for mental illness should be seen as different from managing diabetes, nutrition or any aspect of wellness.
We can lend our voices as professionals, to help educate people and challenge negative thinking about mental health.
We can help spread the truth about what we know about mental illness — that it is not a choice. It’s a condition that touches millions of ordinary people. Untreated, it blights the lives of too many. Getting help is more than okay – it is important, respectable, courageous, and necessary.
Imagine if we could see the suicide rate go down, just by helping more people feel okay about getting help earlier on. We all can reduce the stigma against mental health by talking more openly about the importance emotional and mental well-being.