Mental Health Awareness and the Fight to Eliminate Stigma

By: Donna Demerjian

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in the United States since 1949. It is a time to raise awareness about mental health and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. Since 1949, our nation has made great strides in the way we support those living with mental illness; however, there is still a lot of work ahead in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Stigma is when we view a person in a negative way just because they have a condition. Stigma compounds the pain of mental illness by causing people to feel ashamed of their condition. It can lead to discrimination in the workplace and other settings and prevent people from seeking help. With early identification, treatment, and support, people with mental illness can live healthy and satisfying lives. Unfortunately, less than half of adults who need services receive the help they need.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)  posed the question, “How do you fight stigma?” to their Facebook community members. The responses were powerful and spoke to the resilience of those impacted by mental illness:

Talk Openly About Mental Health

“I fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD on Facebook. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it for me.”

Educate Yourself And Others

“I take every opportunity to educate people and share my personal story and struggles with mental illness. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I over-hear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, or anything regarding a similar subject, I always try to use that as a learning opportunity and gently intervene and kindly express how this makes me feel, and how we need to stop this because it only adds to the stigma.”

Be Conscious of Language

“I fight stigma by reminding people that their language matters. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives and in my experience, most people are willing to replace their usage of it with something else if I explain why their language is problematic.”

Encourage Equality Between Physical and Mental Illness

“I find that when people understand the true facts of what a mental illness is, being a disease, they think twice about making comments. I also remind them that they wouldn’t make fun of someone with diabetes, heart disease or cancer.”

Show Compassion for Those With Mental Illness

“I offer free hugs to people living outdoors, and sit right there and talk with them about their lives. I do this in public, and model compassion for others. Since so many of our homeless population are also struggling with mental illness, the simple act of showing affection can make their day but also remind passersby of something so easily forgotten: the humanity of those who are suffering.”

Choose Empowerment Over Shame

“I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. To me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.”

Be Honest About Treatment

“I fight stigma by saying that I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. Why can people say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor without fear of being judged, but this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health professionals?”

Let The Media Know When They’re Being Stigmatizing

“If I watch a program on TV that has any negative comments, story lines or characters with a mental illness, I write to the broadcasting company and to the program itself. If Facebook has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, then I write back and fill them in on my son’s journey with schizoaffective disorder.”

Don’t Harbor Self-Stigma

“I fight stigma by not having stigma for myself—not hiding from this world in shame, but being a productive member of society. I volunteer at church, have friends, and I’m a peer mentor and a mom. I take my treatment seriously. I’m purpose driven and want to show others they can live a meaningful life even while battling [mental illness].”

This month is a time to reflect on how we can all join the fight to eliminate stigma. Please consider joining the NAMI StigmaFree campaign to end stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness. By signing on, you will receive periodic email updates on NAMI’s work and how you can become more involved.