The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines stigma as “when someone, or even you yourself, views a person in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition.”
Less than 60% of those with a mental health disorder like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder seek help for their condition, according to a study evaluating The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Seeking and Participating in Mental Health Care. This, and other studies, have found perceived stigmas to be one of the major reasons for failing to seek treatment.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) agrees, contending that stigma is a major barrier discouraging those needing mental health treatment from requesting help…with young adults being the least likely to seek care.
A study published in Psychiatry Research found that young adults with “clinically significant” symptoms of a mental health disorder were not likely to seek treatment. The study cited “perceived public stigma regarding seeking mental health treatment” as a reason young people are reluctant to visit a health professional about their condition.
Are We Overcoming Mental Health Stigma?
Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher first discussed mental health stigma as a healthcare barrier in 1999, saying, “Stigma surrounding the receipt of mental health treatment is among the many barriers that discourage people from seeking treatment.” Satcher also stated, “Another manifestation of stigma is reflected in the public’s reluctance to pay for mental health services.”
Although the Mental Health Parity Act has improved insurance coverage of mental health treatment, mental health disorders remain misunderstood and stigmatized by many. Whether mental health stigma is real or perceived, feelings of judgment and negativity adversely affect people with mental health challenges, their family and friends, health care professionals and the community.
Unfortunately, a lack of understanding causes some to view people with mental health challenges as dangerous, difficult to talk to, and in cases like eating disorders or substance use disorder, causing the disorder by their own actions, according to a 2011 study by Psychiatry Research. The researchers found an “increase in beliefs about the dangerousness and unpredictability of those with these [mental] disorders.” While we’ve made some strides since 1999, it’s apparent that mental health stigma is still a problem.
How Can We Eradicate Mental Health Stigma?
NAMI suggests constructive ways to help overcome mental health stigma, which include:
- Talk Openly About Mental Health. By sharing with others what it’s like to have a mental health condition, you are helping to educate the public and encourage those who need mental health support to seek help.
- Be Conscious of Language. Avoid words like “crazy” in everyday language. Educate others about why using disrespectful words or labels is hurtful and inaccurate.
- Encourage Equality Between Physical and Mental Illness. Explain to others that those with a mental health disorder have a disease. Just as you wouldn’t mock someone with cancer, it’s inappropriate and cruel to mock someone with a mental illness.
- Show Compassion for Those with Mental Illness. Learn more about those suffering from mental illness. Read stories written by or about those with mental disorders and educate others as to why the mentally ill deserve our compassion.
- Choose Empowerment Over Shame. If you are managing a mental health challenge, find ways to empower yourself. Build your self-esteem through regular exercise, healthy eating, listening to inspirational stories, and spending time with positive people.
- Be Honest About Treatment. Don’t feel you need to hide your mental health treatment. Be proud you’ve chosen the treatment that’s best for you.
- Let the Media Know When They’re Being Stigmatizing. If you read or watch something that stigmatizes, contact the source and take the opportunity to educate them.
- Don’t Harbor Self-Stigma. Be proud and productive. Interact positively with others, and reach out to those who need help.
NAMI says, “Stigma is 100% curable. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote.”
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