One of the biggest problems surrounding mental health is its stigmatization. As a culture, we still don’t know how to consistently talk about mental health in a healthy way. But one of the initial ways to help fight mental health stigma is by acknowledging its reality, looking at some of the statistics on mental illness in the United States — not only during Mental Health Awareness Month in May, but year round, for as long as it takes to dismantle that stigma entirely.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults experiences mental illness every year. Mental health conditions are those which affect a person’s mood, the way they think, or the way they feel. Conditions from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to anxiety and depression all fall under the umbrella of mental health. Depression is one of the most well known forms of mental illness. It’s also the leading cause of disability in the world, according to NAMI. But despite it and other mental health conditions being fairly common, there is still much social stigma surrounding mental health.
This stigmatization persists because of greater issues like public policy that doesn’t address mental illness and lack of widespread accessibility to mental health care. Mental illness is either portrayed rather narrowly in media or not discussed at all, also contributing to this greater social stigma. However, destigmatizing mental health overall starts with small things like having healthy individual conversations about it.
Here are seven ways you can help fight mental health stigma during Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond.
1. Be Conscientious With Your Word Choice
Words matter, especially when it comes to how we think about other people. A 2016 study from Ohio State University found that simple shift in phrasing — saying “people with mental illness” versus “the mentally ill” — can lead to greater shifts in societal perception. Becoming more aware of these macro- and microaggressions related to mental illness is a necessary step to fighting mental health stigma overall. If you want keep your own vocabulary in check, here are a few guides on words to use and avoid from American Psychiatric Association via Huffington Post and the UK’s Time to Change campaign.
2. Treat Conversations on Mental Pain Like You Would Physical Pain
What does conscientious word choice look like in context? In addition to things like person-first language, it also involves recognizing when overall conversations are not taking mental health seriously. One of the ways NAMI suggests helping fight stigma is treating mental illness like we treat physical illness. Videos like the one above from Hope for Depression Research Foundation and comics like this one from Robot Hugs show just how insensitive and absurd it would sound if we talked about physical illness the same way we do mental illness.
3. Stay Educated
According to a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, more than 80 percent of people will experience mental illness at least once in their lifetime. How can something so seemingly widespread continue to be so heavily stigmatized? For starters, not everyone experiences mental illness equally. In addition to individual symptoms varying, access to care and ability to manage mental health creates a disparity in how people experience everything from depression to anxiety to bipolar disorder. This fact sheet from NAMI provides some basics on mental health in the United States, showing both the prevalence of mental illness and the consequences of lack of treatment.
4. Understand Who Is Most Affected
Certain demographics are are disproportionately affected by mental illness both in number and in access to care. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 26 percent of adults who are homeless and in shelters live with serious mental illness. Among youth ages 10 to 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. According to NAMI, people who are LGBTQ are two to three times as likely to experience mental illness. People who are transgender, especially young people who are transgender, are one of the most vulnerable populations with 40 percent of adults who are trans having attempted suicide. Of those people who are trans who reported having attempted suicide, 92 percent say they attempted before the age of 25. Mental health does not exist in a vacuum. If we want to work to destigmatize it, we need to understand who is most heavily impacted.
5. Fight Self-Stigma
If you experience mental illness first hand, it isn’t uncommon to have internalized shame or harmful ideas surrounding mental health. Self-stigmatization, as stated by Psychology Today, can manifest in self-blame. However, ideas like depression is something to just “get over” is harmful whether you hear it from others or you it’s something you tell yourself. Admittedly, changing the way we talk to and think about ourselves can be one of the most difficult mind shifts. But it can start with small: like acknowledging to yourself “Depression is a real medical condition.”
6. Support Organizations That Support Mental Health
Through donation and volunteering, you can support organizations already working to destigmatize mental illness and help populations who are disproportionately affect. Here are just four of the organizations you can donate to:
7. Let People Who Experience Mental Health Conditions Know They Aren’t Alone
Speaking about your own mental health, while not easy, can be impactful and incredibly powerful. Finding a safe space to share your story, as suggested by NAMI, can be both cathartic for you and encouraging to someone else who is experiencing something similar. Regardless of whether you’ve experienced mental health conditions yourself, you can provide support and encouragement to those who have. Looking for something you can do right now? Take NAMI’s pledge to be stigma free. Societal shifts start small. Taking a pledge is a small but significant symbol in working towards a world that prioritizes mental health, working to end the stigma once and for all.