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5 Steps to Reduce Stigma About Mental Illness

How to change our attitudes and behaviors right now.

If you tune into any conversation about mental illness and addiction, it won’t be long until the term “stigma” comes up. Stigma has various definitions, but they all refer to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior. In other words, stigma can translate into disrespectful, unfair, or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave towards individuals experiencing a mental illness.

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Where stigma comes from is a complicated question. It’s almost like asking where differences in racial prejudice, political views, religious preference, or sports team allegiances come from. Turns out we are influenced (all too easily) by family, friends, the media, our culture and environment, inaccurate stereotypes, and a host of factors. It’s really difficult to tease all this apart.

Rather than figure out where stigma begins, it’s easier to become more aware of what it is and when it occurs. Then we can do our best to educate others about how to reduce stigma and work toward ultimately eliminating it.

How do we become more aware of stigma? It’s usually easier to take a look at ourselves first before we try to change the rest of the world. To that end, here’s a brief self-assessment quiz on stigma and mental illness. Answer honestly; no one else will need to know your answers:

Mental Illness Stigma Quiz

True or False:

  1. There’s no real difference between the terms “mentally ill” and “has a mental illness.”
  2. People with mental illness tend to be dangerous and unpredictable.
  3. I would worry about my son or daughter marrying someone with a mental illness.
  4. I’ve made fun of people with mental illness in the past.
  5. I don’t know if I could trust a co-worker who has a mental illness.
  6. I’m scared of or stay away from people who appear to have a mental illness.
  7. People with a mental illness are lazy or weak and need to just “get over it.”
  8. Once someone has a mental illness, they will never recover.
  9. I would hesitate to hire someone with a history of mental illness.
  10. I’ve used terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” “nut job,” or “retarded” in reference to someone with a mental illness.

The scoring is simple: One point for every true response. Unless your score is zero, you have had thoughts, feelings, or behaviors which can contribute to increased stigma toward people with mental illness. The higher your score, the more likely it is you have had these types of experiences. If you scored a zero, congratulate yourself.

How to Reduce Stigma

Now that you’ve done a quick self-check and perhaps come to agree that there’s room for improvement in how we treat people with mental illness, what’s next? How about becoming an advocate to reduce stigma right there in your own backyard?

Now you may be saying, “Wait a minute; I don’t know if I signed on for that.” Let’s put this into perspective: Have you already signed on to make sure your kids and other passengers in your car wear their seat belts? Did you ever sign on to collect your neighbor’s mail while they were on vacation? Have you ever signed on to give a donation to your favorite cause or charity? If so, then you can do this. You can definitely do this.

But it takes just a little effort. Not too much, just a little. And the rules of the road are quite simple. Here are 5 simple steps you can do as a new stigma fighter:

1. Don’t label people who have a mental illness.

Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “She’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say, “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” This is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.

2. Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.

Yes, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes from movies, such as that of the disturbed killer or the weird co-worker.

3. Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.

In a research study with British 14-year-olds, teens came up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, and the majority were negative. These terms are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about casually using “diagnostic” terms to describe everyday behavior, like “That’s my OCD," or, "She’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, you quite likely may be offending someone and not be aware of it.

4. Don’t be insensitive or blame people with mental illness.

It would be silly to tell someone to just “buckle down” and “get over” cancer. The same applies to mental illness. Also, don’t assume that someone is okay just because they look or act okay or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.

5. Be a role model.

Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.

Former President Bill Clinton said it very well: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.

Copyright David Susman 2019.

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