9 Small But Powerful Things You Can Do To Break Mental Health Stigma

by Carolyn de Lorenzo

Mental illness, while often challenging, is very, very, very common. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about one in five adults experience some form of mental health issue in any given year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that mental health conditions are widespread, and that as many as 50 percent of people in the United States will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Given these statistics, it’s clear that many people encounter mental health challenges in their lifetime. Yet, despite the fact that so many of us either manage mental health issues every day, or know someone who does, stigmas surrounding mental illness persist. One way to stop these stigmas in their tracks? These small but powerful ways to stop mental health stigma are actions we can all start doing in our daily lives.

Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, author of Staying Sane in an Insane World, and The Art of Relationships, tells Bustle via email that society sometimes encourages people to be inauthentic when it comes to mental and emotional health. You might feel like you have to have it all together all the time, and you might feel pressure to say that you're feeling good when you're not, but “often times this is far from the truth,” Jackson says.

Not only can it be isolating to feel like it’s not OK to feel unwell, such pervasive attitudes contribute to a cultural environment where mental health issues and emotional distress get swept under the rug. Mental health issues are taken less "seriously" than so-called physical health issues, though physical health and mental health are intertwined. This can manifest in discrimination against people with mental illness in the workplace, or in receiving appropriate healthcare. Moreover, some people may avoid mental health treatment out of worry of what their family and friends might think of them. Psychology Today reports that even though 43.7 million people in the U.S. live with mental illness each year, one in five will not receive necessary treatment due to mental health stigma and discrimination.

So, whether you manage mental health illnesses yourself, or care about someone who does, there are ways that you can help. Here are nine actionable steps you can take every day to help stop mental health stigma, while helping raise awareness and visibility for people living with mental health conditions.


Check In With Your Friends

Jackson says that one of the best ways to up visibility for mental health conditions is to check in with the people in your life, and find out how they're really feeling. If you think someone in your life might be going through a hard time, but is hesitant to say how they really feel, Jackson suggests asking, "How are you *really* doing?" If someone in your life is dealing with mental or emotional distress, Jackson says, check in to make sure that they're alright.


Show Vulnerability In Ways That Feel Safe

Jackson notes that you can help normalize mental health issues by sharing your own experiences with others. "Self-disclose as much as you feel comfortable, Jackson recommends. "It feels good to know that others are going through, or have gone through, similar circumstances."

"Also, don't just share the negative, but also provide others with the steps or solutions as to how they can tackle the same problem," Jackson further suggests. Psychology Today reports that self-disclosure can bring relief and improve relationships for people managing mental illness, as long as you talk to people who you trust. No rush, and no pressure.


Encourage People Seeking Mental Health Care

If someone you love decides to get mental health treatment, support them in that decision, Jackson says. While friends and family often mean well, they may lack the tools a person managing mental illness needs to get better. Minimizing or invalidating someone's mental health symptoms, or viewing the need for treatment as a weakness, for instance, can cause harm.

"The wrong advice can potentially make things worse," Jackson says. "A professional can help start the healing process, help them obtain positive coping skills, and find the best ways to deal with their mental health challenges."


...But Don't Pressure Them To Do So

Jackson notes that, while seeking professional help can be lifesaving for some people managing mental illness, it's not accessible for everyone. "Outside of fear, there are still other barriers individuals may face when attempting to get the mental health services they need." Cost barriers, cultural stigma, and lack of access to health insurance can all keep people from receiving necessary treatment. Jackson suggests that books, articles, and online support groups can be accessible options if traditional therapy isn't available to someone


Be Willing To Engage In Conversations About Stigma

According to Psychology Today, many people internalize cultural mental health stigmas. People with self-stigma might feel bad about themselves if they're going through a hard time, or finding it difficult to cope. Also, some people who don't live with mental illness might internalize prejudices against those who do. Interrupting harmful speech in safe ways, and engaging in conversations that challenge stereotypes and stigma, can help bring about positive change.



Someone dealing with mental health issues might be concerned about how their condition "will affect their life overall," notes Jackson. "So, instead of trying to find a solution to their problem and being the 'fixer,' just listen. Do not try to provide a solution, just be present," Jackson says. "Your non-judgmental presence can be more healing than you think." Saying something like, 'I hear you,' or 'I'm listening,' while saving your advice until it's explicitly asked for, can be way more comforting than than you might realize.


Know The Facts

According to Shatter the Stigma Mend the Mind, separating facts from myths about mental health is key. Make sure to take the time to educate yourself about stigma and mental health issues before you try to help other people., and the NAMI are great places to start in order to learn more.


Examine Your Own Behavior & Attitudes

Everyone is influenced by cultural conditioning, so it's important to take the time to examine your judgments and attitudes about people with mental illness. Make conscious effort to deconstruct any assumptions you might be making about what someone with mental illness is like. Myths like, people with mental illness are more likely to be violent, are not only untrue, they also perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Unlearn these myths as much as you can by listening to people with mental illness and educating yourself.


Use Language Mindfully

How we use language matters. According to Psychology Today, changing our language habits around mental illness is one of the most important things we can do to stop mental health stigma. Using words like "crazy," "schizophrenic," or "bipolar" in derogatory ways can contribute to stigma and shame. Instead, be mindful to use language accurately and non-judgmentally; where you'd say something is "crazy," you can say it's "surprising" or "silly." Similarly, don't ascribe feelings to people with mental illness; rather than saying someone "suffers from bipolar," try saying they "live with bipolar," or they "experience depression." More accurate use of these terms helps debunk stigma a little at a time.


While cultural stigmas can be stubborn, there are things you can do every day to help support people living with mental illness. By taking an active role in helping to dismantle mental health stigma and shed light on these issues, you can help turn the tide towards a more inclusive future.