Mental illnesses of every type, from depression and social anxiety disorder to schizophrenia, can cause people a variety of profoundly difficult symptoms to manage in their daily lives. But society’s fear and mistrust of people with mental illness has created a stigma that compounds those symptoms—crumbling self-esteem and making social, employment and housing challenges even more difficult to navigate. Stigma against people with mental disorders can even lead to homelessness or suicide.
Here are some tips to understand and help fight against that stigma, so we can support those with mental illness during our daily lives.
Don’t equate people with illness
Remember, a person’s mental illness is not their most defining characteristic. For example say, “A person with autism,” not an “An autistic person.”
Referring to someone as “a schizophrenic,” reduces that person to their illness and ignores all their other qualities; it’s belittling and contributes to the stigma toward people with mental illness.
Recognize that the stigma against people with mental illnesses is often perpetuated by a media-driven myth that they are violent and dangerous. While science continues to uncover more answers about the brain and mental disorders, stigma has paradoxically increased despite the growth in our knowledge. The selective violent presentation of people with mental illnesses by the media reinforces the stereotype. But according to the Mental Illness Research Association (MIRA), “In fact, there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder.”
Stigma prevents basic needs
Realize that the stigma around mental illness can cause difficulty for people seeking housing, employment, and in their everyday social life. Research indicates that the phenomenon of “social avoidance”—where people in the general public choose to avoid those with mental illness based on stereotypes and prejudice—makes it more difficult for people with mental illnesses to acquire safe housing or jobs.
Stigma induced discrimination and logistical factors—such as frequent medical appointments or absences from work or side effects from medication — often deprive people with mental disorders from jobs that could provide them financial stability, health insurance, a sense of purpose, social skills, and other important benefits.
Studies show social avoidance can also affect a person’s social life when guests shun them at parties or in-laws refuse to accept them. Eventually, people may withdraw altogether.
Sometimes “self-stigma” worsens the situation
Social avoidance can lead people with mental illness to a sense of self-stigma, even if you treat them with respect. Self-stigma occurs when people accept the public’s stereotypes about themselves—that they are violent, worthless, the illness is their fault—which further damages their self-esteem.
Research indicates empowerment reduces self-stigma. For example, group programs and community involvement, such as recreation activities, housing services, advocacy and drop-in centers provide support and empowerment by bringing people with like issues together for a cause or to share experiences. Talking about your own mental illness with others reduces the level of shame. Developing a righteous anger toward the prejudices against mental illness is another source of empowerment.
According to the (MIRA), less than one-third of people with mental illnesses ever seek treatment because of the stigma attached to their condition. If family or friends confide that they have a mental illness, or you suspect they are having serious trouble coping, gently urge them to speak with a professional, or join a support group or a group program, such as those discussed above.
Without being overbearing, offer to make calls, drive, sit in the waiting room, or offer whatever other assistance you can give. Let them know you support any attempts to get seek help.
Advocate and educate
Become an advocate for people with mental illness by educating others when they make jokes or misunderstand, speaking out in public and volunteering for mental health advocacy organizations.
MIRA sponsors programs for advocacy and education, including opportunities for contact between people with mental illness who have been successfully treated and organizations, such as schools and businesses.
Another program that facilitates contact between people with mental illness and public groups is sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI). In Our Own Voice, sponsors people with mental illness to speak to groups about their healing process and create understanding. The process is healing for the speaker and fosters understanding and empathy in the audience.
By understanding the issues and stigma people with mental illness face, you can become part of the solution. Help those people with mental illness in your community gain an empowering voice in their own lives and in society.