Most people have at least one friend or family member who suffers from a mental health disorder. Or maybe they are that person who has a mental illness. And if we love them, or are them, it's hard to think about the stigma that follows them around. Those who live with the stigma often have lives hard hit by misinformation, apathy and sometimes even downright cruelty.
People with mental illnesses may have additional challenges to overcome if they want to live normal, productive lives but many of these challenges are not caused by their illnesses. In fact, their difficulties are frequently caused by or at least exacerbated by the way the world views and treats them. Most people with mental illness have much to contribute if only given half a chance and a few extra tools to help them get by in a world that doesn't always soften for them and can actually limit their potential through unfair beliefs, fear-mongering and mistreatment. We can all fight the stigma and help improve countless people’s lives through education and positive examples. Here's how.
Knowledge dissolves ignorance like light cuts through the darkness. Education breeds understanding and understanding breeds safety. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends looking for opportunities to teach people who might otherwise perpetuate stigmas.
We can improve the treatment of people with mental illnesses by improving overall attitudes. Media and social media can be important outlets. Know the truth about mental illness through research and breed understanding gin yourself first and then be willing to share it and call out ignorance when you see it. Work to combat the dangerous stereotypes that say mental illness makes a person dangerous or scary.
We can make the biggest difference as allies when we help people overcome their fears.
NAMI also stresses the importance of reminding people that, yes, mental illnesses affect the brain, but their symptoms have, without question, a physical root. The brain is one of many vital organs that can become disordered or diseased. A person with asthma might suffer from poor lung function at times, but hardly anyone ever blames the sufferer when they can’t breathe. So why should the situation be any different if someone can’t breathe due to, say, a panic attack? When we put the focus on the physical cause we can help dispel the myth that a person with a mental illness should be in control or that "it's all in their head"—a stigma that is particularly harmful.
Mental health disorders can sometimes cause sufferers to behave erratically. For example, someone with uncontrolled schizophrenia may become agitated with hallucinatory characters, and from an outside point of view, they could appear to be ranting and raving at nothing. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might need to wear gloves at the supermarket or walk awkwardly to avoid stepping on cracks. And these outward signs can make some people feel threatened. (We are programmed to notice things that are "different" in our environment in order to stay safe.)
But it’s important to be mindful how we respond when faced with behaviors we might not understand. We might immediately feel scared when faced with this erratic behavior but we don't have to judge the person, and we don't have to act on that fear, and we can, in fact, check ourselves and come back to a place of compassion and understanding. No one wants to feel judged or looked down upon. Our reactions count; behaving as we would for any other person goes a long way to preserving others’ dignity.
How common is the grievance, “I like to keep a clean house; I’m so OCD”? Statements such as this one minimize the emotional distress people truly suffering from the disorder experience. Or how about, "I think I have PTSD after that." Minimizing is the first step toward dehumanizing, which far too many people with mental illnesses have dealt with at least once, if not regularly.
Even doctors are guilty of contributing to this problem. People with mental health issues are far less likely to be taken seriously regarding their physical complaints, generally receiving less-adequate standards of care for their physical illnesses. So one way we can help combat this is to make sure we never minimize the experienced of others or accidentally lay claim to their effects when we haven't been diagnosed with these challenges. After all, they aren't as easy for those who live with them every day to put on and take off like masks — and we ned to respect that.
Most people with mental illnesses need therapy to get or stay on track. There’s no shame in going to the doctor when something’s wrong, and the same should hold true for mental health treatment. Though, just as with our medical doctors, we should all practice a little more mental health maintenance and seek care occasionally just to check in. It can also help to talk about therapy as any other normal activity. By normalizing the act of going to therapy, we pave the way for those with mental illness to seek care without feeling like they need to hide their care. We all do it, after all. And we all should.
Sometimes, the best way to create change is to be a good example. Stand up for people with mental illnesses when they need another voice backing them. People will follow the lead of others, especially when those offering the way have some measure of influence. In cases where stigma has reared its ugly head, offering a compassionate voice for people who need it can go a long way.
Being willing to talk about the stigma, the challenges, and even the treatment and care that a person is receiving can also go a long way toward building compassion and normalizing the challenges the person is facing. Remember to listen without offering advice, unless you're a verified expert, though.
Most people with mental illnesses are every bit as intelligent and capable as everyone else, but they don’t get the chance to shine because stigma prevents them from having access to the same world that most of us enjoy every day. By interrupting stigma and building access for those with mental illness in our social and work circles, we're helping to empower others in ways that few other tools can do. At work, advocate for your mentally ill peers by reminding your boss that the Monday-Friday 9-5 grind is a made-up standard and not everyone needs that to thrive. In fact, others thrive in different ways and are just as valuable as employees. Who knows, in advocating for others, you might find yourself in an even better position for yourself.
Empower people by encouraging their strengths. Maybe they have a creative streak, or maybe they have a special interest they could turn into a hobby. Help others to see people by pointing out strengths instead of weaknesses, and you'll be well on your way to being the best advocate and ally anyone could hope for.
Mental health stigma is a serious issue that creates unnecessary hardship for far too many people—but the driving force of the difficulty often has little or nothing at all to do with their illness and has much more to do with the way the world treats them as a result of that illness. Stigma is a strong force, but the power of human kindness is infinitely stronger — it's just that kindness has fewer warriors — so imagine just how needed you really are.