Overcoming mental health stigma

Over the years I have recognized the difficulty people often have in understanding and accepting emotional and mental health issues. I was teaching a class at Jamestown Community College for a group of young adults who were using terms like “crazy”, “not right”, and “insane” in describing these issues. This kind of language was interfering with their ability to learn about the topic. It also betrayed some biases about their ability to be truly accepting of individuals with mental health issues. An “a-ha moment” for me and the class came when I said, “To truly understand mental health you need to see it as physical health.”

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Yet people struggle greatly in seeking treatment for it in a way that is different from other organs. Think about it: If I have high blood pressure and my primary doctor says I should see a specialist such as a cardiologist, you can bet I’m going! If I break an arm, I’ll go straight to an orthopedic surgeon. What is so different about anxiety, depression, grief, and any uncomfortable emotion that I would tell myself I can handle it and I don’t need to see a specialist? Now doesn’t that sound “insane”? I think 99% of society struggle with issues and yet they try to handle it on their own. If handling things on our own worked with other organs we wouldn’t need blood pressure medications or insulin for diabetes. In the same way, handling things completely on our own with brain function is ineffective.

So how do we help society accept mental health as a physical health condition when it has been separated, stigmatized, and kept confidential out of fear for hundreds of years? We must start by educating ourselves and others about the brain. Only then will we accept that no one is perfect and it’s ok to seek out professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed or fearful about. Treatment is effective and recovery is possible.

When you hear someone using terms that stigmatize or degrade others, please politely ask them not use them. Think of how public campaigns on behalf of those with developmental disabilities have been helpful in curbing the use of the word “retarded” as a put down. People became more understanding as a result.

Recognize that emotions are a natural part of life and fighting feelings really goes against what is natural. Humans are one of the only species that fights what comes “naturally.” Fighting basic instincts to cry and feel can create chronic suppression of emotions leading to long term anxiety and depression. Learning coping skills at an early age can be extremely helpful in emotional development.

Accept what you cannot change and learn ways to deal with it, work around it, or walk away from it; this is truly a helpful skill in coping with life issues. Once we learn that we cannot change other people around us but we CAN change our reaction to others, we find ourselves much more able to deal with stress that triggers negative feelings.

We all need to hear positive feedback from others, but when that doesn’t occur sometimes we have to learn to validate ourselves as we can often be our own worst enemy. Tell yourself often that you matter, remind yourself of what is working well in your life and learn that it’s OK when you’re feeling worried and down but try not to let it envelop you.

When we truly understand the concept that Mental Health IS Physical Health, we can help others see it as well. It only has to start with one person who is willing to make a difference in their own life. Imagine a world where everyone accepted that it is OK to seek out help as they were no longer afraid to be labeled-do you think the school shootings, suicides, homicides, addiction issues, and other self-destructing behaviors would decrease? I believe it because I have seen it. I have seen resiliency and strength grow in those who step forward and get help. I have seen thousands of people recover and lead productive lives once they accepted help. It is never too late and never too soon to accept the help from others whether it is professional help, friends, family, or religious organizations.

Michelle Williams, LCSW, is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County, a charitable agency that provides counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups to individuals, couples, and families. Help Family Services reach 200 “likes” on Facebook by October 31. Just like its page at www.facebook.com/fswcinc and invite your friends and family to do the same.