Shame traditionally has surrounded mental illness. Just as it was taboo to talk about breast cancer in the 1950s, it remains difficult to talk about mental health conditions today. Fear of embarrassment or discrimination often discourages people from reaching out for help. A major challenge today is to eliminate stigma throughout society and create a culture of support.
But what can one person do?
To start, avoid negative language. Many people aren’t aware of the “people first” principle. No one should ever be defined by an illness. Please don’t say “the mentally ill” or “a schizophrenic.” Recognize their humanity first. Help others to see them as “people with mental illness” or “a person who has schizophrenia.”
Stigmatizing language should never be used to characterize a person, regardless of whether they have a mental illness. Words such as “crazy,” “wacko” and “psycho” are prime offenders.
Communication and connection are the main means to help a person. They require rejecting stereotypes. Unfortunately, many people distance themselves from people who have symptoms of mental illness. There are many reasons why: not wanting to invade a person’s privacy, believing it’s “not their place” or not knowing what to say or do. Some are afraid because they associate mental illness with violence, even though the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.
Opening lines of communication
Communication starts with conversations. If you believe a person is withdrawn or depressed or acting erratically, ask them privately and quietly how things are going. Ask how they are feeling and whether there is anything you can do to help. Even a simple hello with a compliment can make a difference.
Don’t pressure them. But if it seems appropriate, suggest that the person seek information resources, a doctor if they are trying to understand new symptoms, or a mental health professional if it is clear that mental health care is needed. Offer to help find information or make an appointment — and even to accompany them for moral support.
Stay connected. Email, text or phone a person every once in a while. Invite them out for coffee, lunch, a walk or a movie. Don’t take lack of response or cancellations personally. Being overwhelmed by the prospect of social activity, particularly in large groups, is often a symptom. The important thing is to keep reaching out.
Simply listening is important. Encourage a person to talk about their experiences, hopes and fears.
There are some things that you may think are well intentioned when you say them, but they are rooted in stigma or misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness. People with mental illness aren’t lazy or of bad character. Don’t tell a person to “snap out of it” or “cheer up” — or say that they simply need to get busy and get out more. Don’t assume or encourage the belief that their condition will go away on its own.
Mental illness affects the entire family. Spouses, parents, children and siblings all may feel stigmatized — and similarly withdraw or become silent about a loved one’s condition. Having conversations and staying connected with them are vitally important as well.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It can strike anyone at any time. Eliminating stigma and creating a culture of support helps everyone. Thank you for doing your part to create a caring community for those affected by mental health conditions.