Tiffany Huth, MPH
Senior Director of Communications & Public Affairs, Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness
Mental health conditions continue to be misunderstood and rarely spoken of in America. Yet in a given year, mental health issues will personally impact one in five adults in the United States – approximately 20 percent of the population. One in 25 adults will experience a serious mental illness, one in six American youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.
Mental illnesses – just like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes – are treatable health conditions and there are things a person can do to make life better and manage the symptoms.
What is stigma?
Stigma represents a complex set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that manifest in discriminatory perspectives and practices against people with mental health conditions. And while mental health diagnoses are more prevalent than heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, migraines, osteoporosis, and asthma, misconceptions and misinformation have left many people with a mental illness afraid to talk about their experiences or seek the help they need.
Stigma can pervade the lives of people with mental health problems in many different ways, from diminishing self-esteem to cheating people of social freedoms – in particular, being denied opportunities such as employment, housing, health care, or common respect because of their illness.
How to reduce the stigma
Stamp Out Stigma, a public health campaign spearheaded by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders, recommends sticking to the “three Rs”: recognize, reeducate, and reduce.
You must first recognize when your loved ones need help. Recognize the high prevalence of mental illness. Recognize the signs. Recognize when someone isn’t getting the help they need. Recognize when stigma is creating a barrier to care.
Then, reeducate ourselves, friends, and family on the truths of mental illness. Reeducate yourself on resources: What are your current health benefits? Who can you talk to? What can you do? Reeducate yourself and others on mental and emotional health. Reeducate yourself and others on how to find the path to recovery. When we do this, we can reduce the stigma. Reduce hesitation to seeking care. Reduce misunderstandings. Reduce bullying and insensitivity.
Knowing what to say to someone you notice is experiencing a mental health condition can be daunting. Expressing your concerns, acknowledging their feelings, and often, just listening can give someone hope. Using person-centered language to talk about mental illness ensures the person is seen as a person first, not as their illness. Keep in mind that people have disorders; they do not become a disorder. Avoid referring to people as “schizophrenics,” “alcoholics,” or “anorexics.” Instead, use such phrases as “people with schizophrenia” or “individuals who have anorexia.” When reaching out to someone who may be struggling, knowing what to say can save a life. For more tips, check out the SOS Language Guide.
Recovery is possible. We must educate and motivate ourselves and others with that fact.