Published on May 23, 2022

May is Mental Health Awareness Month: It’s Time to Stop Stigma 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11.3 percent of adults aged 18 and over experienced regular feelings of worry, nervousness, or anxiety, and 4.5 percent of adults aged 18 and over experienced regular feelings of depression in 2020. According to the American Psychological Association, during the pandemic rates of anxiety and depression rose significantly. By 2021 rates of anxiety were reported to range from 28 to 37 percent and depression ranged from 20 to 31 percent.

“These statistics mean there is a very good chance that every person in the country knows someone who is suffering from anxiety or depression,” said Michelle Lucchesi, M.A., L.L.P., therapist, MyMichigan Medical Center Alma. “So, why is it that so many people are unaware of this suffering happening around them? The answer is stigma. People don’t talk about these struggles for fear of being judged.”

Stigma is the pervasive negative perception of people with mental health conditions. The American Psychiatric Association identifies three different 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; and institutional stigma, government or organizational policies that limit opportunities for those with mental health conditions, either intentionally or unintentionally. 

Each of these types of stigma begins with the individual. The attitude a person holds toward mental health and mental illness is seen in their speech and behavior. It often comes out unintentionally and is perceived by those around them. It either opens or closes the door on a conversation. When a person perceives negative judgement through the language that is used, tone of voice or body language, the door is closed, and it sends a message of shame to the person who is struggling.  

“It has long been known that when people feel ashamed about their mental health status or repeatedly hear messages that they should feel shame, it’s less likely they’ll seek the care they need,” said Lucchesi.

According to the CDC, 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. 

“People seem to miss the reason for the shame. It seems to begin with a collective myth that many people hold. People seem to divide the world into two types of people; those with mental illness and those without. This categorical thinking sets people up to try to avoid putting themselves in the “ill” category, which is related to negative stereotypes,” explained Lucchesi. “As a result, they will deny symptoms and resist treatment. This myth also taints how people see others. When someone is seen as being in the ‘ill’ category they become the ‘other’ and are mysterious, inferior or different than those in the ‘well’ category.”  

Lucchesi continued, “There are many ways people can all contribute to lessening the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. It begins by changing the thinking about mental health and mental illness. All people are humans, and all humans have struggles. Some of these struggles interfere with functioning more than others. These can be diagnosed and may require professional treatment. Reducing the stigma requires open communication about mental health and struggles. When a person is open and honest about their own mental health struggles it can help others feel comfortable opening up about what they might be going through.” 

MyMichigan Health recommends that in order to talk openly and accurately about mental health, education is key. This can be achieved by learning about mental health conditions and available treatments that can assist when speaking to friends and family.

“By using accurate mental health vocabulary, it sends a message of respect and dignity for the person. It communicates that the struggle is real and may require professional treatment. Using slang terms is derogatory and shames the person,” said Lucchesi. “Changing stigma within society begins with each individual changing their thinking, and then being willing to talk openly about personal struggles. What’s more, being willing to see each human being as a valuable person no matter how severe their struggle is just as important.”

MyMichigan Health provides a Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MyMichigan Medical Center Alma and soon at MyMichigan Medical Center Midland for those who need a higher level of treatment than traditional outpatient. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MyMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.mymichigan.org/mentalhealth.