• Sherry Kay Fulmer

Destigmatizing Mental Health


Earlier this month we observed World Mental Health Day, which exists to increase mental health awareness globally. We are all impacted by mental health conditions and with the current state of the world, our mental health is at greater risk now more than ever. Not everyone recognizes the importance of mental health, and even those who acknowledge its importance may catch themselves making statements that perpetuate the stigma which unfortunately still surrounds mental health. Even the language we use to discuss mental health--problem, disorder, issue--is stigmatizing (but that's another topic for another time).

Here are a few of the many common statements that perpetuate stigma of mental health conditions:

  • People with mental illness are in control and should just snap out of it

  • People with mental health disorders lack morals and are violent and dangerous

  • Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses

  • People use their mental health disorders as excuses and to excuse bad behavior

  • People who struggle with their mental health are weak

  • People don’t recover from mental illness

These statements are often easily and widely accepted but ultimately these statements are lies.



Let’s break them down and take a deeper look!

Quit saying: People with mental illness are in control and should just snap out of it.


This statement perpetuates stigma by minimizing the pain and difficulty people with mental illness experience. A majority of mental illnesses have biological and environmental components that the person truly doesn’t have control over, so merely suggesting they can snap out of it is just insulting.

What you can say instead: People with mental illness have struggles outside of their control, and it may take time for me to understand what they’re experiencing.



Quit saying: People with mental health disorders lack morals and are violent and dangerous.

This statement perpetuates stigma by overgeneralizing a whole group of people, which we should all be able to agree by now is harmful. This statement is also perpetuated through the prevalence of violent and immoral depictions of characters in the media. Think about the movies, shows, and other media forms you are exposed to. So often the people who commit crimes or have violent outbursts are revealed to be struggling with mental health problems. Media also often misrepresents disorders, making them look more aggressive and violent then what the average person faces. It is estimated that 3% of violent crimes are committed by people with *serious* mental illnesses, and those with mental illness are actually at increased risk for being victims of violent crimes (10x more likely!!!). *serious mental illness can be defined as disorders with psychotic features, schizophrenic disorders, bipolar disorders and severe expressions of other diagnoses. Again, having these illnesses does not mean someone is violent or dangerous, or lacking morals, and those with these illnesses are at greater risk of being harmed.*

What you can say instead: Mental health conditions can look very different in different people, it's not fair to stereotype a whole group of people.



Quit saying: Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses

This statement perpetuates stigma again by minimizing one’s experience. Mental illnesses are real illnesses (and often have very real physical symptoms too). Often this statement can come from a place of lacking: lacking personal experience with mental illness, lacking education/understanding or even just have inaccurate information about mental illness. None of these are reasonable reasons for discounting the validity of mental illnesses.

What you can say instead: Mental conditions are real and valid, even if I don’t have experience with them.


Quit saying: People use their mental health disorders as excuses and to excuse bad behavior.


It's way easier to write something off as bad behavior than to accept that we don’t understand what’s going on. Sometimes it is hard to understand the behaviors of others, but stating that people use their mental health condition as an excuse is an assumption that perpetuates the stigma associated with mental health conditions. It is really easy to make assumptions about someone’s behaviors, but when we approach the behaviors from a place of curiosity and empathy, we are much more likely to understand the behaviors. It also helps if you have an open conversation whose behaviors might be troubling you, because you can break down the assumptions further.


What you can say instead: I don’t understand their behavior, I should {respectfully} check in and try to learn more.



Quit saying: People who struggle with their mental health are weak.


This is a condescending statement perpetuating stigma by assuming that struggling with something equates to weakness. I think this idea stems from the outdated belief that emotional expression or admitting flaws makes you soft and weak, but emotional expression means acknowledging your experience and having courage to share that with others. Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. People

struggling with their mental health are often having trouble regulating their emotions or expressing them in healthy ways, which is exacerbated by the idea that they have to stifle their emotions to fit into a box that society created. If instead we challenged our own biases about mental health conditions and our own biases about strength, we would be better able to approach those struggling with empathy and kindness. Also when you understand mental health conditions you’ll realize it takes great strength to persevere!

What you can say instead: It takes great strength to keep going when things are hard.



Quit saying: People don’t recover from mental illness.


This statement stems from a place of hopelessness and perpetuates the idea that there is no use in helping those who are struggling with their mental health. Because mental illnesses and other mental health conditions all look different, recovery looks different too. While some conditions are life-long, with medication and therapy, a majority of people are able to function and live a ‘normal’ life {but really, what is normal??}. Some conditions occur in episodes; sometimes they’ll be a single episode, and other times you will experience recurrent episodes. Some conditions change with time and are less pervasive and you “recover” from them. No matter what the mental health issue is there is hope. There are plenty of ways to learn to cope and live fully with your mental health conditions, just like you would if you developed a medical condition.

What you can say instead: Recovery looks different for everyone, but there is hope.

We are all guilty of jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about others. If we are being honest, we have all probably said, or at least thought one of the statements above. Stopping the stigma starts with us. When we stop and reflect on our own beliefs and experiences relating to mental health we can start to break down the assumptions we have. I challenge you to actively reflect on the statements you make regarding the mental health of others. If you catch yourself perpetuating stigma stop and reflect, and find a healthier approach to the statement.


Stop stigma. Promote wellness. Spread kindness.



References

Mental Health Myths and Facts. (August 29, 2017). US Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/


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Trilby Yonkovitz

Harvest Family Therapy LLC

Sherry Kay Fulmer

Fulmer Family Therapy LLC