Published on May 19, 2022

Mental Health Awareness: Stopping The Stigma

Mental Health Matters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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. This equates to 29 million people in the United States suffering from significant anxiety and 11 million suffering from significant depression.

These statistics mean there is a very good chance that every person in the country knows someone who is suffering from anxiety or depression. 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, or the negative attitudes others have concerning mental health disorders, self-stigma, or the negative attitude one has about their own mental health, which can show up as internalized shame, and institutional stigma, or 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. 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. 

But 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. Therefore, 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.    

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.

All humans can be seen on a spectrum of health; sometimes in the healthy zone and sometimes in the struggling zone, and sometimes in the not functioning zone. Every human moves up and down this spectrum and sometimes needs help. Help may come from a friend, a clergy or from a mental health professional. A diagnosis may be made when a person is struggling or not functioning well. But all humans need help at times.

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. 

To be able to talk openly and accurately a person must educate themselves. Learning about mental health conditions and available treatments can help them prepared to talk with friends and family. This education can help them be careful with their words. Using real mental health vocabulary 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.

Changing stigma within society begins with each individual changing their thinking, and then being willing to talk openly about personal struggles, and being willing to see each human being as a valuable person no matter how severe their struggle.

For those who need more intense treatment for mental health conditions, MyMichigan Health provides an intensive outpatient program called Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MyMichigan Medical Center Gratiot. 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 http://www.mymichigan.org/mentalhealth.