Photo by diego_cervo/istockphoto.com
WARNING: This article contains content some readers may find triggering.
Just like our physical health, we all face our own mental health issues at one point or another, to a varying extent. In fact, as per the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five American adults will personally experience a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression, each year. Finally, we’re seeing a social shift towards acknowledging mental health; it’s almost trendy and “woke” to do so, but simply acknowledging that mental health exists should be the bare minimum. For anything to continue to change, we need to keep breaking down barriers by having frank, vulnerable discussions—and, most importantly, listening and believing others when they say they’re not okay.
So, how do we keep the conversation around mental health progressing? We must take the important step to acknowledge the more taboo phrase, mental illness. This differentiation between mental health and mental illness is essential to creating an understanding of these issues: whereas we all have mental health, only some of us will experience mental illness. This distinction is important, as hearing about mental health is becoming commonplace, but hearing about mental illness is still very much stigmatized.
The Stigma Hasn't Ended
If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice stigma in the subtle nuances of human behavior. Stigma is apparent in the hushed tones someone uses when addressing a mental health issue or disorder. We still see stigma in ignorance of mental illness topics, as if burying our heads in the sand will make them go away. We see it in our fearful avoidance of eye contact with the homeless man or woman talking to themselves on the street corner; and, of course, we see stigma in more obvious ways as well.
In fact, as a result of stigma, we can personally face financial, social, or emotional repercussions for opening up about our own mental health issues. How often have you wanted to take a mental health day but hesitated, or didn’t altogether, because of fear of being perceived as weak or high maintenance? And from a much more serious standpoint, those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis that includes suicidal thoughts could refrain from speaking out in fear of being perceived as attention-seeking, but we question time and time again after someone dies by suicide why they wouldn’t ask for help.
Change Begins with You
So, how do we solve this if we’re stigmatized when we speak out, yet we also want to speak out to squash stigma? It’s complex, but the truth is, like so many other things, it’s an inside job first. It starts by facing our own discomfort—not gonna lie, this is ugly and difficult work, so be gentle with yourself. But by identifying and admitting how we stigmatize others with our preconceived notions of what mental health issues, disorders, or illness—whatever you choose to call it—look like, we can start to unravel the complexity of mental health stigma.
A big root of stigma is fear of the unknown, so the more educated we can become on mental health issues and disorders, the more we’ll begin to understand them and put real faces to those who suffer. You might be shocked to realize, they look a lot like you or those you love. So listen to mental health/mental illness-focused podcasts, do some reading and self-guided research, and most importantly, try to understand that we’ll all be directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues to some extent at some point in our lives. Just remember, with a little compassion and understanding—for both ourselves and others—hope reigns, and better days will come.
5 Ways to Continue the Conversation
We can each do our part to move discussions about mental health and mental illness in the right direction. Here are some actionable steps:
1. Believe someone—no judgement—when they hint, or outright say, that they’re not okay.
2. Get face to face, or at least talk over the phone or video chat—this is always the best method for conversations around mental health or mental illness. When you text or email, tone, inflection, and meaning can get lost in translation.
3. Ask questions more specific than, “How are you?” because that question usually elicits an automatic “I’m fine” response. If you sense someone is struggling, don’t be afraid to try, “How can I help you right now?” or a simple, “I’m here for you if you need to talk,” can be comforting and inviting.
4. Simply being an active listener, without trying to solve the problem, can often be most helpful when someone is working through an issue.
5. If you’re going through something difficult, confide in someone who has earned your trust. You’d be surprised how sharing your own struggles relieves some of the burden, helps you see more clearly, and even sets the stage for reciprocal sharing down the road.