We hear the word ‘stigma’ a lot, but what does it mean? Stigma is a negative attitude toward a social characteristic, like mental health. You also see stigma around other parts of humanity, like gender, race, and sexuality. Unfortunately, mental health is still quite stigmatized. But the more we talk about something and understand it, the less stigmatized it becomes.
Because there is stigma around mental health, people are sometimes scared of judgement and feel shame when they are dealing with something challenging, which leads to people not seeking out help and feeling isolated and alone.
We all deal with challenging times. It is part of life. The more we learn, and the more we talk about this, the less stigmatized it becomes, and the better we will all be.
Part of understanding stigma is understanding that there are negative myths that exist around mental health. These myths (or misunderstandings) are damaging because they stop people from having compassion for each other, compassion for themselves, and reaching out for help. Some myths you might recognize:
It is important that we recognize these myths and work toward changing them with education and understanding.
Encountering struggles in life is normal! We need to start speaking about mental health issues the way we would talk about cataracts or a broken leg. Unfortunately, because it is harder to see the cause of a mental health issue, we sometimes see people struggling as ‘different’ or ‘broken’. But they are not different or broken. They are just going through a tough time in their lives.
We also sometimes associate people with mental health issues or mental illness as weak, incapable, or dangerous. It is important to understand that we are not defined by our mental wellness, and that we are all at some point in our lives going to experience challenges with our mental health. There are many factors that influence mental health and recovery from mental challenges, including biological, genetic, environmental, and social.
So, what can we do to normalize mental health? Learn. Spread awareness. Use language to separate the person from the problem. We view ‘a depressed person’ differently than ‘a person experiencing depression’. As people, we are built to talk and share. This is what will help us move toward a healthier future.
Mental health and wellness is not about always being happy, never feeling sad or angry. It is okay not to be okay! All of our emotions have a function, are part of life, and are how we grow. We are allowed, and expected, to feel. Struggles become a problem when they get to a place where they negatively impact our lives and require support to get through.
The question is, how do we cope with not being okay? Or for the purpose of supportive conversations, how do we help someone cope with not being okay? The goal is to realize what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and learn the skills to work through it.
If you’re wondering why people sometimes don’t help themselves or seek out help, there are multiple reasons. Stigma and lacking understanding of mental health are underlying causes, which is why it is so important for us to have these conversations and be open to learning. More specific reasons could be:
Have the conversation because for most people struggling, talking is the first step towards getting help and feeling better. Have the conversation because you care about your friends and family. Have the conversation because it strengthens the bond between you and another person. You might expect that they have other people in their lives who know them better and will check in on them, but you may be the only person. Just have the conversation because it could: