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Breaking through mental health stigma

When we have a health issue like a broken ankle, strep throat or fatigue, we often seek medical help as soon as we know something is wrong.

Yet, research shows people with mental health conditions wait an average of 10 years before seeking treatment. Many hesitate to talk with family, friends and health providers.

A main reason people put off getting help is the stigma associated with having a mental health condition. Stigma leads people to label, stereotype and even marginalize, ridicule or trivialize people with mental health conditions.

This in turn makes it harder for any one of us who might experience a mental health condition to acknowledge what is happening and seek treatment. It also makes it more difficult for us to have compassion for and talk openly to those with mental health conditions, even when they are people we love. And that can make people feel isolated, keeping them from seeking the treatment they truly need or causing them to deny their symptoms completely.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, only 60 percent of people with serious mental health conditions actually receive treatment.

What can we do to break down stigma?

1. Acknowledge and understand it

  • Stigma is not based on facts. It's based on negative media portrayals of people with mental health conditions and addiction, fear, lack of education and understanding, our personal experiences, and stories we have heard throughout our lives. 

2. Educate yourself and others

  • A mental health condition is a medical condition that affects a person's thinking, feelings, mood, everyday life and ability to relate to others.
  • Mental health conditions are common. One in four adults and one in five children experience a mental health condition at some point. 
  • As with other physical health conditions, mental health conditions may be caused by genetic, environmental, biological, social and/or cultural factors.
  • Mental health conditions are not due to someone lacking character, being "weak," or having a bad upbringing. They are treatable with psychosocial therapies and medication.

3. Be compassionate−See the person, not the condition

  • Understand that at the core of any mental health condition is a human being who deserves dignity, respect and kindness
  • Treat people with mental health conditions with the same compassion as people with other illnesses.
  • Recognize people are much more than their diagnosis. Whether you live with a mental health condition or are a friend, family member or acquaintance of someone who does, remember getting to know someone as an individual means far more than just knowing what they are going through.
  • Small acts of kindness speak volumes.
  • Don't stand by if someone is using unsupportive language. Gently make an effort to educate them.

4. Choose language carefully and consider how it affects others

  • Avoid emotion descriptions like "I am feeling schizophrenic," and "My OCD is acting up."
  • Avoid words like "crazy," "nuts" or "psycho." People may think using these terms to describe behavior that seems odd, eccentric or strange is harmless, but it can be damaging to the self-esteem of those experiencing real mental health conditions. It perpetuates the stigma that keeps people from taking the action they need to get help. 

Each of us can rise to the challenge of breaking down mental health stigma. We can chip away at it so that when we or someone we love experiences a mental health condition, it's easier to talk about, seek help and address it—just as we would with any other medical condition.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

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