Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Many people in modern society seem to have a perception that the world is divided into two categories when it comes to mental health conditions; those who have them and those who don’t. This mentality leads to all sorts of problems, including stigma.

 According to the American Psychiatric Association a stigma is a pervasive negative perception of people with mental health conditions. They identify three types of stigma:

  • Public stigma – the negative attitudes others have concerning mental health disorders
  • Self-stigma – the negative attitude one has about their own mental health, which can show up as internalized shame
  • Institutional stigma – includes government or organizational policies that limit opportunities for those with mental health conditions, either intentionally or unintentionally

Humans have a tendency to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ no matter what the topic is. People will put down ‘them’ in some way, to perceive ‘them’ as not as good as ‘us.’ This is true for mental health conditions as well as many other characteristics. Mental health issues have additional complexities involved with the perception.

Often people are uncomfortable with mental illness because they don’t understand it. Mental health conditions can result in behaviors that look bizarre or seem strange to some people. This is especially true for psychotic disorders. But people are often uncomfortable even with symptoms related to depression or anxiety, which are very common disorders. This may be because when people put all mental health conditions into one category and that category is associated with bizarre behavior they are likely to want to avoid it.

When people divide the world into two categories and perceive the ‘other,’ those with a mental illness, as somehow strange, they are not only perpetuating stigma and setting themselves up to treat others poorly, but they are also putting themselves at risk to feel shame when they, themselves, may struggle with a mental health condition, which they are likely to experience at some point; according to the World Health Organization, 46 percent of people will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life.

When people feel ashamed of their mental health status or repeatedly hear messages that they should feel shame, it’s less likely they’ll seek the care they need. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, embarrassment is one of the many barriers that stop people from seeking treatment. In fact, only about 20 percent of adults with a mental health condition actually seek treatment. 

There are many things people can do to reduce stigma. It begins with each person looking at how they think about mental health conditions. Instead of compartmentalizing the world, it is useful to recognize that every person is human and all humans have struggles at times. Sometimes these struggles interfere with functioning. When this disruption of functioning is great enough it may be diagnosed and may benefit from treatment.

People can also talk about it. Being open and honest about your own mental health can help others feel comfortable opening up about what they might be going through. People need to be careful with words. Using real mental health conditions as negative adjectives sends a message that those diagnoses aren’t taken seriously and aren’t worthy of seeking treatment for.

People should educate themselves. Learning more about mental health conditions and available treatments can help people to be better prepared to help friends and family by recognizing symptoms of mental health conditions, and recognizing and accepting in themselves.

There is no shame in seeking help for a mental health issue. In fact, seeking treatment is a commitment to yourself and for everyone you love. Recognizing that there is no shame in mental health struggles will result in reduced stigma and increased compassion for yourself and others.

All humans have struggles; it’s part of the human condition. Recognizing this can help people to be honest and accept others, and themselves, without shame.    

For those who are struggling, MidMichigan Health provides a Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MidMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MidMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.midmichigan.org/mentalhealth.

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