Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness


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By Jori Hamilton

According to recent estimates, nearly 20% of American adults experience some form of significant mental illness. Unfortunately, only about half of those will ever seek treatment. The rest will continue to suffer — often in silence. And that is not just a shame, it’s a tragedy. The fact is that mental illnesses, in general, are highly treatable. From utilizing counseling to psychotropics, those with mental illness can manage their disease and live happy, healthy productive lives. But doing so requires care. The persistent stigmatization of mental illness, however, prevents sufferers from receiving the treatment they need and deserve. And that’s costing lives.

The Stigma Endures

For all the talk in today’s culture about diversity and inclusion, equity and social justice, mental illness remains one of the last significant and enduring stigmas, particularly among minority communities. All too often, stoicism is mistaken for strength while opening up about one’s troubles telegraphs weakness or, worse, a sort of ingratitude or selfishness.

As a result, those who seek mental health care such as counseling may be perceived as “broken,” “defective,” or just plain attention-seeking. After all, ours is not exactly a society that values self-care, no matter what greeting cards and TV commercials may say. But recognizing that you are not alone and that you have the right to take care of yourself, that you have the right to pursue your own happiness, is the first step to ending the stigma — both for you and for those who come after.

Making a Change

Combating the stigma surrounding mental illness is by no means easy, and the victory will not come overnight. But it’s a fight that’s not just important — it’s essential. This is a fight that, quite literally, will save lives.

Seeking help for yourself is the first step, as we’ve seen. But it’s far from the last because getting help also means empowering yourself to stop self-stigmatizing. That includes being honest with yourself and others about your condition and your treatment.

It also means learning to identify your triggers, those situations and circumstances that elicit the symptoms of your illness to manifest or to worsen. Once you’ve learned what provokes your anxiety, your depression, your anger, your fear, or another diagnosis, you — and ideally your mental health care provider — can come up with a strategy to manage your responses more productively. You might need to remove yourself from the situation; you might need to reach out to your therapist, or you might just need to practice meditation or gentle yoga to help you recenter, refocus, and regain your calm.

In addition to seeking treatment and practicing self-care as a means of fighting stigmatization, it’s also key to take a broader view as well. The roots of mental illness often run quite deep, encompassing not only genetic and physiological factors but social ones as well. For instance, poverty is strongly associated with various mental illnesses, ranging from depression and anxiety to addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After all, the mind and body can only endure the chronic and profound stress of food and housing insecurity, underemployment, and community-based violence for so long before something gives.

The Takeaway

Millions of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. Yet far too many are denied the care they deserve because of the persistent stigma attached to psychiatric disorders and mental healthcare. However, reclaiming your power to speak the truth of your condition and your right to seek help and get well is a key first step in ending the stigma. The next is understanding that mental illness is not an individual problem. It’s a social issue, and that, ultimately, is where we must look to put an end to the stereotyping and help those with mental illness build the happy, healthy lives they deserve.

Jori Hamilton

Bio: Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of topics but takes a particular interest in topics related to politics, urban living, society, and health. If you’d like to learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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