Let’s Do Something About the Stigma Around Mental Health
Article by Robyn Brickel, LMFT
“We all can reduce the stigma against mental health by realizing that it’s not a personal shortcoming or a character flaw or a moral weakness. No one chooses to be depressed!”
Together, We Can Make It Okay to Ask for Help
We have a massive issue as a society and culture when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental illness. This stigma stops too many people from getting help early when it is most effective. You and I can easily help end the stigma and prevent a great deal of suffering and save more lives with a little bit of knowledge and some simple changes.
First, I want to share a couple of stories about how the stigma surrounding mental illness has completely changed the lives of families and communities.
“That’s not a happy kid,” thought Madison’s father, after dropping his daughter, a popular college athlete, off with friends. Madison Holloran’s parents didn’t realize how serious her battle with “unhappiness” was until it was too late. They share their story – recently featured on ESPN – to promote suicide prevention and help lift the stigma around mental illness.
“I was so worried,” said Maggie Huang who discovered thoughts of suicide that her daughter Wynne, 14, had written. She didn’t know what to do. Her daughter had been skipping school and struggled even to get out of bed. Her mother had scolded, punished, and fought with her, but it took a life-threatening crisis to get the help they needed. Now, mother and daughter share their story about depression and mental health in the Washington Post and with other organizations to help more people seek help before it’s too late.
Mental Health Issues Are More Common than Most People Think
You may be surprised by the number of ordinary people who struggle with a mental illness. It is as prevalent in the US as people diagnosed with cancer. One in five adults suffers from mental illness in any given year, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Behavior addictions, eating disorders, alcohol, and drug abuse impair millions of people, some even before they are teenagers. Mental health issues can be life-threatening, but they don’t have to be. The important thing is to address the illness early on.
There’s a terrible cost to the stigma about asking for help.
It keeps too many from learning how to recover mental health while the issues are the most manageable.
The (Too-) High Cost of the Stigma Around Mental Illness
About one in 25 adults suffer illness severe enough to interfere with life activities. Meaning, you are likely aware of someone suffering from some kind of mood or anxiety disorder; such as post-traumatic stress disorder (or complex post-traumatic stress disorder), obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism, or a phobia. That said, many more struggle with worry, self-esteem, or troubling thoughts and emotions in near-invisible ways. Too often, it takes an emergency or a loss of life to get people to act.
The cost of unchecked mental illness – especially depression – is terribly high. The second leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24 is suicide. The first sign that someone needs help dealing with a mental health issue probably won’t happen in the therapist’s office. It’s going to come out in the real world, in familiar ways:
- “Oh, I don’t need help, I’m strong enough. I can do it on my own.”
- “You’re weak if you ask for help.”
- “People will think I’m crazy if I go to therapy.”
- “In my family, I was taught that you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
- “I want to handle this on my own.”
- “People will think I’m a failure.”
- “My problems are not big enough.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
This is the stigma talking. Too many people don’t get help because they dismiss the problem, don’t know what action to take, or are too ashamed to ask. It does not have to be this way.
How to Take a Stand for Mental Health
What can we do to end the stigma about getting help for mental health?
- First, we need to see there is a problem with the idea that “normal people shouldn’t need therapy.”
Then we need to stand up for the idea that seeking counseling or therapy is just good self-care — it’s not only for people in crisis. It’s for each of us, any time we want to give ourselves the gift of wellness.
Even in writing this article, the effort to discuss “mental illness” without unwanted connotations is difficult. This phrase often comes pre-loaded with negative attitudes toward those labeled “mentally ill.” Ideally, the terms “mental illness” and “mental health issues” could be used interchangeably – and neutrally – when we talk about the need for treatment and healing.
Lifting the stigma will free more people to seek help. Trained, professional, objective individuals and groups are available to help sort through what’s going on so that matters don’t get worse or reach the crisis stage. No one needs to wait for drug or alcohol abuse, cutting or other self-harming behaviors, abusing food (under-eating or overeating), or a suicide attempt before helping a person get treatment. Imagine if we could see the suicide rate go down, just by helping more people feel okay about getting help earlier on.
Simple Ways to Fight the Stigma
What can the average person do to change negative attitudes about mental illness?
We can develop a better attitude toward mental health issues and those with mental illness, and be more open about our own needs when the time comes.
- It takes more courage to go to therapy and deal with the issues than it does to turn away from it.
- Seeking therapy is actually not a sign of weakness, but of strength.
What if it were admirable to seek help? I believe it is!
If you are already getting counseling, that’s confidential. You don’t have to talk about it. But if you choose to, you may find that others want to talk about their experience, too. Once it becomes an okay conversation, then you hear a lot more about it and people start talking.
A New Perspective on Mental Illness
Imagine living in a world where mental health and physical health are equally important. If you have a sore throat you go to the doctor because you want that to get better. If you’ve struggled with feeling depressed or anxious, or with panic attacks, or if some difficult issues happened in your life, you would find it just as easy to get help.
Like a cold or the flu, depression, anxiety, or any mental health condition isn’t something you choose. It’s something you have. There is no reason that caring for mental illness should be seen as different from managing your diabetes, your nutrition, or any aspect of wellness.
We all can reduce the stigma against mental health by realizing that it’s not a personal shortcoming or a character flaw or a moral weakness. No one chooses to be depressed!
Let’s repeat that: Mental illness is not a choice. It’s a condition that touches millions of ordinary people. Untreated, it blights the lives of too many. Getting help is more than okay – it is important, respectable, courageous, and necessary. We can help end the stigma by showing acceptance, support, and respect for mental health issues and those who address them in their lives.
Article by Robyn Brickel, LMFT
Seek Help Locally:
Understanding Mental Health Issues
Founded by a college student, Active Minds works to empower students to change the perception of mental health on college campuses and encourage more students to find the support they need.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Support for mental health promotion and people with mental illness. The website can help you find a local group, and there is a toll-free helpline
Mental Health America
A crisis line and link that can help people find support. National advocate for better care for persons with mental health conditions, fight stigma, and prejudice linked to mental health issues.
National Institute of Mental Health
Research and outreach to help prevent, treat, and cure mental illness. Information about finding support is on the page Help for Mental Illness.
Robyn Brickel, About the Author
· Robyn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with 20+ years of experience providing psychotherapy, as well as the founder and clinical director of a private practice, Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. She and her team bring a strengths-based, trauma-informed, systems approach to the treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples and families. She specializes in trauma (including attachment trauma) and the use of dissociative mechanisms; such as: self-harm, eating disorders and addictions. She also approaches treatment of perinatal mental health from a trauma-informed lens.
· She frequently shares insights, resources and links to mental health news on Facebook and Twitter as well as in her blog at BrickelandAssociates.com