Busted: Mental Health Stigma

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“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”

Lemony Snicket

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Let’s talk about mental health stigma. Tomorrow is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month. I’ve been lucky because, due to a recent med change and HUGE stressor taken off my plate, I’ve been doing pretty good this month. This is actually a post that I started last year and I am just now getting around to finishing, but I think it is an important topic to discuss. Honestly, it’s the reason that I’m here, writing this blog.

When I decided that I wanted to get involved in mental health advocacy, all I knew was that I wanted to make a change in the form of understanding. I wanted to combat the mental health stigma that I had been facing my whole life. I started the blog because a lot of the advice that I read said to tell your story. That’s exactly what I did. That said, my work doesn’t stop there. I try to find other ways to advocate and speak out. Fight the good fight.

I’m here to bust the mental health stigma surrounding ADHD and mental health.

Mental Health Stigma

Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Basically, negative, unfair, and inaccurate beliefs that society holds about certain groups of people. These beliefs are held against us with brain disorders quite often. We’re seen as a tainted product. Mental health stigma runs rampant in every society across the globe. I read about one study that said there isn’t a single country or society in the world that doesn’t see people with mental illness as having less societal value.

There are 3 kinds of mental health stigma:

Self-stigma – negative self belief and internalized shame

Public stigma – how society as a whole thinks of people with mental health issues

Institutional stigma – systemic stigma, built into our governments and private institutions

For the most part, my self-stigma has cleared up a lot over these last few months of learning about myself. I no longer feel ashamed of who I am or the disorders that I carry. They aren’t my fault. They are something that is happening to me. I have forgiven myself for so many things and I am learning how to love myself more and more every day. But we all still have internalized mental health stigma to fight. Remember to be kind and compassionate to yourself.

Public mental health stigma is rampant and probably always will be. I fight for a better world, but we’ll never change all minds. That said, I will never stop trying to educate people; trying to help them understand what it might be like for those of us with brain disorders. Sometimes I get so insulated in the community surrounding ADHD and mental illness that I forget that not everyone is so accepting. It never fails to make my jaw drop when someone says something awful.

Institutional mental health stigma is systemic stigma and it is built in to our governments and private institutions. It’s the reason your mental health insurance isn’t as good as your regular health insurance. It’s the reason it’s not the same damn insurance. It is the reason people can’t call out on days when they’re having poor mental health and are expected to work through even the worst breakdowns.

What Does Mental Health Stigma Look Like?

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mental health stigma

Stigma is everywhere and it can look like a lot of different things.

Inaccurate or misleading portrayals in the media. We see this most often when the “villain” is portrayed as having a mental illness which causes all sorts of violence, law-breaking, and debauchery. Also, the helpless mentally ill person who can’t function, sitting in a hospital in a near catatonic state. It’s all very over done. Not to mention that mentally ill people aren’t any more likely to commit violence than the population at large.

Harmful stereotypes. These are everywhere, unfortunately. People with ADHD are just lazy. People with depression can just choose to snap out of it. People with mental illnesses are toxic, untrustworthy, unpredictable, and all manner of unsavory characteristics.

Telling someone with a mental disorder to “snap out of it,” or “try harder.” Look man, don’t you think they are trying as hard as they can? Don’t you think that if it was as easy as “snapping out of it,” we would make the pain go away in an instant? It’s in our brains and there is no cure. We fight as hard as we can when we need to; stop being patronizing.

Misinformation about medications and therapy. I saw my first therapist when I was nine years old and was on my first psychiatric meds by the time I was seventeen. That said, because of internalized shame and stigma, I never saw either thing as a long-term option. Throughout my twenties, I was on and off medications and in and out of therapy, always with a different therapist. It wasn’t until I was 32 years old that I had a doctor say, “Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that you will likely always need to be on medication, even if at a low dose, for the rest of your life.”

Thing is, she was right. I can’t imagine how different my life might have been if I had stayed on meds and had a consistent relationship with a therapist. But stigma kept me from it. Mostly internalized stigma, but also institutional stigma. There were times when I didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t afford care. I once walked into a crisis center and begged, “Please help me. I’m a danger to myself.” After a 10 hour wait, they turned me away because, “We can’t give you a bed here because you don’t have insurance.”

Calling people crazy to describe their behavior. So, check it out. I’m the worst about this. I say things “drove me crazy” all the time. Truth is, it’s harmful. I can’t tell you how many times the crazy label has been thrown at me as an insult. Thing is, I’m not crazy. I’m sick. There’s a difference. Words are important and we have to start choosing them more carefully.

Isolation from people with mental disorders. This is mind-blowing to me, but there are people who will completely isolate themselves from anyone they perceive to have a mental disorder. They erroneously believe us to be untrustworthy, unpredictable, or worse…dangerous. They fear what they don’t understand and so they run from it.

Disrespect for the gravity of the situation. This is a big one and it’s something that really gets under my skin and makes me angry. I have been in the deepest, darkest hole imaginable, under attack by my own brain from every angle, and was still expected to act like nothing was wrong. We’re told to “just keep swimming.” We’re told to practice gratitude. Keep working, keep producing, keep smiling. It’s disrespectful. It’s minimizing what is actually happening. Most mental disorders are serious illnesses. They are debilitating and insidious. That deserves to be acknowledged.

Believing that children don’t experience mental illness. I’m here to tell you folks, most brain disorders are there from the start. At least the propensity for developing them is there. I was a child with mental health issues. While my parents did take me to therapy at nine, no one really considered what might be causing my behaviors. They (that includes the medical professionals who treated me) just thought I was a rebellious, obstinate kid. They thought I was just “bad.” Early intervention is one of the best ways to treat and prevent serious mental health issues. Kids are suffering because people don’t believe they can be affected. They can.

The Aftermath of Mental Health Stigma

Stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination…Oh my! Stigma and discrimination can make mental health issues worse, often making recovery harder and even impossible. Stigma can be worse inside certain communities. For example, men are often expected to be stoic and emotionless; told to “be a man” when showing even the slightest emotion. Stigma can also be prevelant in certain cultures and communities of color.

The real kicker about all of this is that mental health issues are extremely common, throughout the world. More than 50% of all US adults will need mental health treatment at some point. Over half the population. We’re not even in the minority. 1 in 5 adults in the country will need some kind of treatment. So why is stigma so prevailing?

The effects of mental health stigma can be devastating. It can cause:

  • Internalization of negative beliefs
  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hopelessness
  • Shame
  • Avoiding treatment
  • Worsening symptoms
  • Lack of criminal justice
  • Discrimination at work
  • Unemployment
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide

How Can We Combat Mental Health Stigma?

There are many ways to help stomp out mental health stigma, even if you don’t have a brain disorder. First and foremost, we can start by having a little compassion and understanding for people who’s circumstances are different than our own. It’s the most important step.

According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health), here are a few ways to help the fight:

  • Talk openly about your mental health. This might be talking with your friends, family, or coworkers or it could be talking openly on social media. I know many people on Twitter who have anon accounts so they can be completely open and honest without fear of backlash.
  • Educate yourself and others. Again, talk to them. When you hear someone spout a false assumption, correct them. This requires that you also educate yourself. Knowledge really is power. The only way to stomp mental health stigma is with the truth about what brain disorders really are.
  • Words matter. As I said before, we have to change our language. We have to start choosing words that don’t hurt.
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental health. This is one of the most unfair aspects of having a brain disorder…the system is set up to believe that our issues are secondary. It’s a vanity to want to have a healthy brain, or so the system would have you believe. We have to fight for that equality.
  • Show compassion. Be kind to people. You never know what is going on inside someone else’s head. Your kindness may just be the thing that keeps them here with us for another day..
  • Be honest about treatment. Be open about going to therapy or taking meds. There is no shame in either and we can’t take the shame that people feel out of it unless we’re open and honest about what we are going through.
  • Let the media know when they perpetuate stigma. Write letters, send emails, leave voicemails. Do whatever you have to do to let them know when they’re getting it wrong. They are partly responsible for the spread of stigma, they should be partly responsible for cleaning up the mess they made.
  • Choose empowerment over shame. There is nothing shameful about having a mental disorder. You didn’t ask for it. It is something that is happening to you, not something that you did. Empower yourself with knowledge and let go of the shame.

If you would like to focus on how to make your voice heard and how to fight mental health stigma, you can try the following:

  • Blogging – Start a blog and tell your story. As you learn about yourself and your brain, write about your findings. When you’re going through a tough time, write about it. Let people know what it’s like to truly live with a brain disorder.
  • Social Media – Start a social media account or two and use it to advocate.
  • NAMI Legislative Campaigns – NAMI has an email list you can sign up for to be notified when mental illness is on the agenda. They provide filled out form letters that you can email to your representatives, asking them to please vote for mental health initiatives.
  • Educate yourself and others. I cannot stress enough how powerful awareness is for a person who suffers from a brain disorder. The more you know about your brain and how it works, the more powerful you become.

To Wrap It Up

So that’s it. That’s my post about mental health stigma. We all have our parts to play in breaking through to the people who hold these erroneous and harmful beliefs. Mental health stigma is harmful and often leads to even more poor mental health. It makes it harder to receive the treatment that you need.

I will continue to do my part in combating mental health stigma for the masses. I will use my voice to speak for those who can’t. I will fight for all of us until my last breath.

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Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight! 

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