What is Stigma & why does it exist?
Stigma is the belief that something causes you to be a bad person. It is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” I believe one of the main reasons stigma exists in mental health is because mental illnesses are misunderstood. People do not understand mental illness or what it is like to suffer from one. Often times people seem to either fear or mock things they do not understand. Likewise, they also tend to shun those who do not fit in. People have this idea of what normal looks and act like. And unfortunately, anyone who does not meet this criterion can be labeled. As a result, they are perpetuating the stigma already attached to mental illness.
Some illnesses are easily hidden. Therefore, no one will know unless told. However, more serious illnesses are not so easy to hide. There are obvious signs that a person suffers from a mental illness. Hallucinations, delusions, and catatonic movement can be a dead giveaway that someone is schizophrenic. This can make them a target for avoidance, ridicule, and harassment. Because of this, many people do not disclose their mental health condition or seek help out of embarrassment or shame.
Perpetuating the Stigma
Mental illness has always been highly stigmatized and ridiculed. Just the other day I was watching the news during a severe weather broadcast. The weatherman was cracking a joke about hearing 40 different voices because of all the storm trackers talking at once. I found his joke to be a little offensive and highly inappropriate. I suffer from a mental illness that actually does cause me to hallucinate and hear voices. My friends have made jokes about those who suffer from mental illness. Before my diagnosis, even I participated in making fun of the mentally ill. Unfortunately, this type of behavior happens every day. And people often see it as innocent and harmless.
Mental illness carries with it a stigma that follows the person everywhere they go. Once you disclose to others that you suffer from a mental illness, people start treating you differently. Those who are different and do not meet the expectations of others are often looked down upon. Likewise, people call us crazy, psycho or insane. People often times will use the need for therapy in a derogatory manner or as an attack. They make insensitive jokes at the expense of those who do suffer. What may seem like an innocent joke to some can be perceived as ridicule by those who are mentally ill. Many people still believe that “seeing a shrink” is something that only “crazy” people do. As a result, they are only perpetuating the stigma further.
Fighting the Stigma
Stigma causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. It also prevents people from seeking help for their mental health. Most people who live with a mental illness have been blamed for their condition or called names at some point. But how do we fight the stigma? The first step is to talk openly about mental health. Talk about what it is like to suffer from a mental illness. Try to educate yourself and others. Share your personal story with others. If you do not suffer from a mental illness, read or listen to the stories of others. Avoid using mental health conditions as adjectives. Be concious of the language you use when talking about mental health.
Try not to make jokes about mental health or saying things like “you need therapy” to someone. Let people know when they are stigmatizing others. Help them use the proper language when discussing mental health. Avoid putting people down for suffering from a mental illness or minimizing their symptoms. Show compassion to those who do suffer. Try to be understanding of their condition and the battle they are fighting with their own mind. A simple act of kindness can change a persons life. Be honest with others about your treatment. Talk about seeing a therapist as you would seeing your primary care doctor.
And lastly, don’t harbor self stigma about yourself. Don’t hide from your mental health condition, or put yourself down for suffering. Be honest and open about your condition with others. Help them understand and let them know how they can help. I help fight the stigma by being open about my mental illness on this blog and on social media. Contribute to the mental health movement. You can make a difference simply by knowing that mental illness is not anyone’s fault, no matter what stigma says.