There is one area of health that rarely gets talked about in public. That seems rather strange, because it is much more common than a lot of the other conditions that gets talked about frequently. This health problem is so common it affects one in four adults and one in five school-age children.
Those who have it can be any age, any color, any size, and have any amount of money. This illness doesn’t discriminate or play favorites.
I’m talking about mental illness, something many of you reading right now have. Only, unlike a physical health problem, you probably haven’t told many of your friends or colleagues, maybe not even your family members. Or, if you have told, you’ve likely asked them to keep it private. Really private.
We keep our mental issues private because of stigma. And for good reason. Stigma is a powerful thing. We are afraid we’ll lose our friends, lose our jobs, or lose our standing in the community if people find out. Or we expect people will be afraid of us, think we’re crazy, and wonder if we’re going to do something horrible or embarrassing. Or we worry people will be overly gooey in their sympathy and stop treating us the same.
The Mayo Clinic notes these harmful effects of stigma connected with mental illness:
· Lack of understanding by family, friends, colleagues or others you know
· Discrimination at work or school
· Difficulty finding housing
· Bullying, physical violence or harassment
· Health insurance that doesn't adequately cover your mental illness
· The belief that you will never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation
Pretty serious things. With all the associated stigma, it makes sense, doesn’t it, that people don’t feel comfortable admitting they have a mental illness?
It makes sense to me.
But it’s time to change.
I invite you to join me in standing up to the stigma associated with mental illness. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Education helps. Awareness building helps.
Organizations like, Active Minds http://www.activeminds.org/, Bring Change to Mind http://www.bringchange2mind.org/ and MAMI http://www.nami.org/ are working to reduce stigma. Others, like The National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov, World Federation for Mental Health http://www.wfmh.com/ and Mental Health America http://www.nmha.org/ are involved as well. I encourage you to click on at least one of those links and expand your awareness in the area of mental health.
But don’t stop there. I have three personal recommendations as well.
These are fairly simple things I think everyone can do, starting today. Here goes:
Number One-- Link yourself with mental illness.
That’s right, own it as something that could happen to you, your child, or your parent. Maybe it already has. Being healthy mentally is part of overall health and wellbeing. That goes for everyone. Stigma starts when we make a distinction apart from ourselves. With one in five adults affected and one in ten children, it is not a US versus THEM thing. It’s US.
Number Two—Watch your language.
How we talk about something influences us strongly. Next time you find yourself commenting on someone with a mental illness, check how you say it. Instead of saying, “She’s bipolar” say, “She has bipolar.” The first equates a person will mental illness, leading to stigma and separation. The other correctly indicates a condition a person has. Change starts slowly, and this is a small but influential step to take.
Number Three—Start talking more about mental illness.
Maybe you aren’t ready to go out on a limb and share about your own mental health. That’s okay. But everyone can start talking more about mental health in general. Let’s get it to be part of our everyday health conversations. Read an article about depression and talk about it over coffee with someone else.
Doing these three things will reduce the silence. It will reduce the shame. It will reduce the stigma.