“It’s an odd paradox,” wrote actress and mental illness destigmatization advocate Glenn Close, “that a society which can now speak openly and unabashedly about topics that were once unspeakable still remains largely silent when it comes to mental illness.”
This paradox is indeed odd, but it’s also more than that: it’s dangerous. Stigma can make people feel somehow less-than, damaged, or abnormal because of a diagnosis of mental illness often leading to negative consequences. People may avoid getting life-saving treatment, refrain from reaching out to offer support to others in similar situations, or remain silent instead of advocating for policy and structural changes that could benefit everyone.
It’s past time for the stigma that comes with mental illness in our society to be acknowledged, examined, and disposed of – it’s simply been around far too long and hurt too many people. The good news is that there are real steps that can be taken on the path to removing stigma.
We can all start with these five steps:
1.Remember that language matters; it’s worth changing your language habits.
The terms we use when discussing mental health issues matter. Advocates call for using person-first language, which puts the focus on the person instead of the diagnosis. Whenever possible, question the use of the term “patient” and try to avoid it; the term “patient” is from the Latin “patiens” meaning “one who suffers,” which has a pejorative connotation and risks dehumanizing the person. Every person is more than a label or mental health diagnosis, but the language we use can sometimes serve to obscure that fact, unfortunately. So, for example, instead of referring to someone as “a schizophrenic,” rephrase to simply state that the person has schizophrenia. Avoid phrases such as “suffers from” which may incorrectly describe an individual’s experiences.
2. Be an advocate for the use of ADA accommodations in schools and workplaces.
Often, minor modifications to school or work environments can make a big difference when it comes to a person’s ability to thrive in those places. Robust use of the rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act helps create more opportunities for everyone to benefit from diverse and inclusive workplaces and classrooms. Skillful application of the ADA requirements and guidelines ensures that people can capitalize on their strengths rather than being excluded due to a disability. An inclusive environment can decrease stigma and move towards focusing on positive attributes and abilities.
3. Help work to integrate mental health care into primary care settings.
The ability to access necessary mental health care should not be a luxury. Individuals should be able to receive flexible care for mental illnesses in the setting of their choice with collaboration from their primary care provider – at least as easily as they can with their other physical health concerns. When mental health services are available within primary care settings, it helps normalize the experience of mental illness as another health concern, rather than a stigmatized disorder that is somehow the fault of the person who bears it.
4. Be someone who helps start conversations about self-stigma.
Self-stigma is a concept that is too infrequently mentioned in mental health treatment circles: the term refers to the internalization of public stigma whereby a person applies negative beliefs to his or her own self-concept. It’s such a common and harmful misapplication, and clinicians need to start talking about it with individuals to raise awareness about it, and root it out wherever it appears to be present. Some people feel uncomfortable directly confronting issues related to self-stigma, but it’s crucial to remember that recognizing and managing our own negative self-concept goes a long way towards increasing compassion and empathy towards others.
5. Discard the dichotomous view of health and illness.
People experience a range of normal reactions to life stressors and unfortunately we tend to over-pathologize, especially when someone has a mental health diagnosis. A true recovery orientation views mental health as a spectrum, not an "all or nothing" state of being. Everyone is working on something. It will always be true that improving our health (mental and physical) is a marathon, not a sprint. If we can figure out the things that make it easier for us to attend to our mental health – including the de-stigmatization of mental illnesses of all kinds – then it’s important that we pursue them as fully as we can.