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People with mental health challenges are often stigmatized for their condition, leading to discrimination, disgrace and disapproval. This stigma often only exacerbates the issues at hand, causing those to suffer even more from alienation, lack of support, and lost social and professional opportunities. 

Breaking the stigma associated with mental health can help uplift those with challenges and educate everyone to create a more knowledgeable, positive community.

Mental health and illness.

According to Mental Health America, an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from mental disorders in a given year. There are more than 100 different classifications of mental illness. Those suffering from mental health disorders can therefore range greatly in their disorders; while some of the symptoms might be the same, no two people with mental disorders are alike. Even people who share the same mental disorder might have completely different ways of experiencing their condition.

Because there are many different disorders, symptoms and conditions, treatment for these disorders varies greatly from one person to the next. Medication cannot cure mental illness, but often can provide ways to combat the symptoms. However, many choose not to rely on medicine. Some may try psychotherapy — using medicine and therapy in tandem — or try therapy or support groups.

The stigma of mental health.

Stigma associated with mental health is wide-ranging, even if individuals know someone, are related to someone, or are friends with someone with mental health challenges. In the medical field, mental health is stigmatized for its difficulty to classify and diagnose, often causing arguments between doctors who believe in different types of treatment and solutions. Representations of those with mental health challenges only exacerbate these negative feelings; the media often provides violent, manipulative and dangerous representations of these people, reinforcing negative stereotypes and allowing diminishing attitudes to flourish.

The stigma of mental health is often contrasted with the worry and care we see for those with physical health challenges. Often deemed “invisible illness,” mental health challenges are stigmatized because there’s seemingly no quantifiable evidence that someone’s struggling. We can’t see mental illness like we can see a fracture on an x-ray.

How does stigma affect mental health?

Stigma affects mental health by amplifying negative attitudes, feelings and concerns about one’s own mental health challenges. If people around someone with mental health discriminate against their challenges, the person who’s struggling might be afraid to ask for advice or treatment. The power that stigma has therefore often prevents those suffering from getting the help they need.

If one’s friends, family, coworkers or classmates stigmatize mental illness, this can worsen social relations for someone who does have mental illness. It is the responsibility of those who do not struggle with mental illness to support and uplift those who. By listening and understanding those who do have mental illness, they can foster healthy social relationships. If they are stigmatized, they will instead be alienated from those around them and unable to participate fully in their community.

9 Ways to Break the Stigma of Mental Health:

1. Talk about it.

Conversation is key. If we don’t talk about mental health challenges, we won’t be able to share stories and find solutions. Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out about mental health. By starting a dialogue, we can move away from stigmatizing others and encouraging them instead.

2. Listen to those who are struggling.

While talking is important, listening is even more crucial. We can’t help others if we don’t let them share how they’re feeling and try to understand what they’re going through. Ask questions and actively listen to their answers. Listening is an invaluable way to support others.

3. Educate yourself constantly.

We’re all afraid of the things we don’t know. Combat stigma but researching and educating yourself on all things mental health. You don’t need to focus on every disorder and its symptom; focus your work on how those with mental health challenges gain support.

4. Educate others.

We can’t expect those with mental health challenges to carry the burden of educating everyone else. As allies and stigma breakers, it’s our responsibility to educate those who know less than us. Ignorance is not bliss; it’s a reason for stigma. Educating others by sharing what you’ve read and learned can help combat stereotypes and negative generalizations.

5. Be aware of your language.

Because mental health diagnosis and treatment is in the medical realm, there are many terms and definitions that are used in the community. When educating yourself and others, make sure you’re using respectful terms and being conscious of your language. Even when not discussing mental health challenges, be mindful of how phrases associated with mental health are used in your everyday language — things like trivializing suicide or calling someone “crazy.”

6. Stop labeling others.

Labels are a part of language. With so many different mental health challenges, situations, journeys and treatments, it’s important to be careful before we jump to conclusions and label someone. A person is not their disease or their disorder, and labeling someone with their challenge as an adjective is only hurtful, not helpful.

7. Care for and empower those with mental illness.

Supporting others who are struggling is an incredible way to combat the stigma they may face. Offer compassion through active listening and respect individual mental health journeys; empower others by supporting their treatment and their progress.

8. Call out to call in.

When someone else is stigmatizing mental health, call them out to call them in. Calling them out means pointing out the offensive or negative thing they’ve said. After you’ve got their attention, call them in by respectfully educating them on their mistake and guiding them toward your understanding. By calling them in, you’re demonstrating how they should discuss mental health challenges in the future and giving them the knowledge to do so.

9. Encourage equality.

The best way to create change in a stigmatized community is to actively work against it. Fight for policies that recognize and uplift those with mental health challenges. Fight for their opportunities to thrive in the professional world so they can support themselves, friends and families. Ensuring equal and equitable opportunities for those with mental health challenges allows them to take full advantage of their lives and live freely.

What is cure stigma?

Cure stigma is a movement by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the nation’s largest grassroots organization focusing on mental health. This movement works to recognize and combat stigma from everyone — those who do suffer from mental illness and especially those who don’t suffer from the same challenges. They offer a free quiz to help people become aware of their unconscious bias against mental illness, and provide ways to support those who are affected by mental illness: a walk to physically show support, a platform to share hopeful stories and numerous places to donate to the cause.

Raising mental health awareness

One of the best ways to combat the stigma of mental health is to create awareness. There are a multitude of mental health challenges, and it’s important to educate yourself and others on the unique struggles those with mental illness may face. Create awareness of the different types of treatment and recognize that the type of treatment is a personal and private choice. Talking about these issues — whether in a formal setting or a casual conversation —helps normalize the discussion, raises awareness and promotes positive attitudes about mental health challenges.

If you’re thinking about raising awareness in a larger community, there are numerous resources that welcome and encourage volunteers to help with their operation. Whether it’s organizing a walk or giving a presentation on different mental disorders, getting others involved in the mental health movement can help bring awareness to communities everywhere.

Equally as important as raising mental health awareness for others is making sure you and others are aware of your own mental health. If you or someone you know is feeling concerned or upset in a way that’s unlike their usual behavior, try a self-assessment. Promoting resources like https://helpyourselfhelpothers.org/ encourages yourself and others to hold one another accountable for your own mental health. Being aware of our own mental health can help us help others; we can become better, educated, and supportive allies or communities members by understanding the ways we are privileged.

Excited about promoting mental health awareness? Want to educate others? Ready to start a conversation? All of these actions and more can help end the stigma associated with mental health challenges. Looking in ourselves and our language habits, education, and even mental health can help us become better supporters and more effective listeners, creating a more positive, open environment with equality for all.

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Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.