Have you ever noticed that people often speak openly about physical ailments, yet feel a need to hide psychological issues from others? Mentioning a doctor’s or dentist’s appointment can be said without fear of persecution, but mentioning a therapy or psychiatry session might evoke judgment and shame. There is still a palpable stigma around mental illness in the U.S. and that makes it difficult for people to speak openly and confidently about mental conditions. Ultimately this makes it more challenging to seek the help they need to recover from or manage their mental health concerns. Below are 10 ways that you can stand up to the stigma:
1 | Use “person-first” language
Instead of calling someone “a schizophrenic” or “an autistic,” utilize phrases such as “a woman with schizophrenia” or “a boy with autism.” This may sound like a subtle distinction, but the former uses the person’s diagnosis as the sole identifying characteristic, whereas the latter indicates that the diagnosis is just one of many traits of the individual.*
*Edit 04/30/2018: Since writing this article, I've learned that certain groups — such as many autistic self-advocates — prefer to be referred to with identity-first language. Click here to learn more about why.
2 | Avoid using diagnoses to describe someone’s personality, behavior or appearance
Using diagnoses as descriptors for negative aspects of the human condition reduces people to the prototypical symptoms of their psychological condition. Instead of saying “I’m so O.C.D.!” say “I like my things to be in order.” Instead of saying “My mom can be really bipolar!” say “My mom can be moody and unpredictable at times.” Instead of saying “She’s a total anorexic.” Say “she’s become very thin, I’m worried about her.”
3 | Utilize empowering language
When talking or writing about individuals affected by trauma, use phrases such as “survivor of rape” or “children healing from trauma” as opposed to “rape victim” or “traumatized children.” The difference here is that one type of phrase perpetuates an assumed state of victim-hood, whereas the other type of phrase indicates the possibility for survival, healing and recovery.
4 | Avoid the phrase “suffering from…”
Avoid the use of the word “suffering” in conjunction with mental health diagnoses – such as “she suffers from anxiety and depression” – which assumes a state of suffering, as opposed to a state of acceptance and peace with the condition. Instead, use statements such as “people living with anxiety and depression,” which implies the ability to persevere despite the condition.
5 | Speak openly about your own mental health and treatment
It helps break the silence about mental illness when we say things such as “I used to have an alcohol problem, but now I’m 5 years sober,” or “my therapist encouraged me to…” Speaking openly about our own experience with mental illness and therapy from a stance of empowerment helps other people acknowledge that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Your courage to speak up might inspire others to do the same.
6 | Avoid denying the existence of a particular mental health issue
Denying the existence of certain diagnoses may be a popular trend at the moment, however doing so alienates those who identify with their diagnosis. Many people utilize their diagnosis as a way of understanding their unique pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors and can serve as a way of seeking community support that would be otherwise difficult to find. Stating that you “don’t believe AD/HD is a real disorder” invalidates the experience of those who have it.
7 | Educate yourself
The more you know about a psychological condition and what it would be like to live with one, the easier it will be to empathize with those who do. Books written from a first-hand account of someone who lives with a specific mental health issue can provide great insight and awareness. Expose yourself to another perspective and you’ll have the opportunity to see mental illness in another light.
8 | Validate your loved one's issues
It’s extremely hurtful to be told to “snap out of it,” “stop being so sensitive,” or “shake it off” when you have a psychological condition that is negatively affecting your life. These phrases have been likened to telling someone with a physical disability to “get over it.” Instead, validate your loved one's concerns, offer help and attempt to understand what it might be like to live in their shoes.
9 | Share your views
Have something constructive to say about mental health? Voice your opinions with family, friends and coworkers, take to social media, start a blog, or get involved with a mental health advocacy group and get your message out there! We will only be heard if many of us speak out. Now’s your chance. What are your thoughts on mental health stigma and ways to reduce it? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
10 | Spread positivity
There are so many things that we can become negative and divisive about – let’s not make mental health one of those issues. If you sit quietly and think about all of the people you know who have been affected by mental illness, whether diagnosed and treated or not, you will probably come up with quite a few names. Mental illness is real and seeking treatment for mental issues needs to be a tolerated and encouraged act in our society. So please, have a positive influence on this movement. We all need it!
about the author
Hi! I'm Natalie. And my passion is helping people live more peaceful, meaningful lives. Through holistic therapy in Pasadena and here on the blog, my mission is to provide people with the support and tools they need to live their best life.