People who are dealing with mental health conditions often face a whole other challenge: mental health stigma. As if living with a mental health condition isn’t often challenging in and of itself.
But what is mental health stigma? It’s when others unfairly (and unwisely) say that mental health conditions are the fault of the people experiencing them. It’s when people (yes, even friends and family) label people with mental issues as “weak” or describe them with other negatively charged terms. It’s even when people downright discriminate against others who they deem “different” due to their mental health conditions.
If you’re living with a mental health challenge yourself, stigma can cause unnecessary shame and, thus, can also lead to a reluctance to seek help. Unfortunately, the harmful effects of this kind of stigma can also cause a lack of understanding by the very people, such as family, friends, and co-workers, who would (in an ideal world) be part of your emotional support system, instead of exacerbating your feelings of stress and isolation.
People with mental health issues, then, may receive less support than the average person — when in actuality they would most likely benefit from an increased sense of understanding. Therefore, if you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health condition, it’s important to fight this ongoing stigma.
Below are some suggestions to help you become the best mental health warrior you can be:
As mentioned above, sometimes stigma can create unnecessary shame and, thus, a reluctance to get treatment. To combat this, it may help to incorporate a way of thinking that encourages equality between physical and mental health conditions. There’s no shame in seeing a doctor for heart disease, autoimmune issues, and other medical conditions: There should be NO shame, therefore, in seeing a professional for your mental health condition. Explaining this to others also helps them overcome their own stigmas.
Know You’re Not Alone
When I was battling the worst years of my anxiety, I felt as emotionally isolated as a person who had been lost at sea, floating alone on a raft with no land in sight. And because I was fearful that I’d be labeled as “weak” by others (and bought into the stigma myself that I was), I tried to overcome it without any help. When I finally bought a self-help program, I learned that other people had just as bad — and even more debilitating anxiety — than I did. I also connected with fellow anxiety-warriors on social media, and thus began my journey into self-acceptance and healing.
Educate Your Community
When and if you feel ready to share your own story, talking openly about your challenges and triumphs can help others overcome their personal stigmas, may help you lead a more empowered life, and can increase hope for fellow mental health warriors. Of course, when, how, where, and with whom you share your story is up to you. And even if you choose not to talk about your own process, you still have the option to speak out against mental health stigma by expressing your general opinions to others, writing letters to editors of various publications, even contacting broadcasting companies if you notice that their shows include mental health stigma-inducing plotlines or dialogue.
Be Your Own Best Friend
Remember that you are not a condition. Yes, you are dealing with it, but you are not defined by it. So, make sure that when you refer to yourself, you don’t label yourself as whatever condition you have (for a medical example, don’t state that “I’m a diabetic” but say that you “have diabetes”).
Know, too, that just like a medical condition, there may be times when things become exacerbated. Triggers such as stress, sleep deprivation, and grief can cause mental health to take a nose dive. Make sure to take extra care of yourself when you’re triggered, instead of berating yourself for taking “three steps back.” In other words, be your own best friend, a supportive and empathetic guide who doesn’t define or label you as your condition and helps you through the toughest of times.
Know Your Legal Rights
If you feel as if you’re being discriminated against, please know that you have rights! For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can help you figure out an appropriate course of action if you feel your rights have been violated. They also list rights of workers, including when an employer has the right — and does not have the legal right — to fire someone dealing with a mental health condition, and how an employee can acquire “reasonable accommodation” in order to decrease stress while increasing productivity.
No matter what course of action you take and how challenging it can be to fight this stigma, please know that you are not alone in this journey — and, in fact, are a warrior!