When I walk into the office of my internist, dentist, or eye doctor, the folks in the waiting room tend to look up, smile, sometimes even engage in small talk. But when I go to my weekly therapy appointment, the waiting room is silent. Eyes dart. Folks look uncomfortable, gazes cemented on magazines and devices.
Because when it comes to mental illness, fear and ignorance still loom large –and translate into shame for many seeking help.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, “Stigma is toxic” because it “creates an environment of shame, fear and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment. The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act to change it.”
The word stigma is derived from the word stizein, which was used in ancient Greece to describe a mark placed on slaves to indicate they were of lesser value. In today’s language, stigma means an identifying mark of shame or discredit, and its association with mental health is twofold:
- Social stigma is characterized by prejudicial attitudes and discriminating behavior directed towards individuals with mental health challenges;
- Self-stigma is the internalizing by the mental health sufferer of their perceptions of discrimination.
Social stigma can discourage those suffering with mental health challenges from seeking help, which only perpetuates self-stigma and can lead to isolation and exacerbation of the underlying illness. For something that affects so many– data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness—it’s clear that more work needs to be done.
We can all help dispel misconceptions and negative stereotypes often associated with mental illness. Here are some good ways to start:
- Know what you’re talking about. Education is a powerful first step in fighting the stigma. We can refute myths by introducing empathy, compassion and understanding into the conversation. People who suffer from mental illness are not to blame for their conditions.
- Illnesses are not adjectives. If someone is struggling with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example, identifying them by their illness is neither compassionate nor appropriate. If you hear someone say, “she’s bipolar,” you might point out that “she has bipolar disorder” is the correct phrase.
- Words carry weight. Introduce kindness and tolerance into the conversation. Describing someone as “schizo” or “crazy” only fuels ignorance. Would you poke fun at someone in a wheelchair or someone struggling with diabetes or cancer? Certainly not without drawing sharp criticism. Watch your words and encourage others to do the same.
- Shared experience can be powerful. If you suffer from a mental health challenge, sharing your experience and knowledge could build bridges to better understanding. You might also instill courage in someone struggling but feeling ashamed and unsure of how to find help.
Like any health challenge, mental illness can cause extensive suffering and disruption. Reducing the stigma that surrounds it can help both sufferer and observer alike.
The next time I go to therapy, I’ll make a point to smile at the faces in the waiting room. High-fives might be a leap, but it’s certainly something to shoot for.