If you tune into any conversation about mental illness and addiction, it won’t be long until the term “stigma” comes up. Stigma has various definitions, but they all refer to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior. In other words, stigma can translate into disrespectful, unfair, or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave towards individuals experiencing a mental illness.
Where stigma comes from is a complicated question. It’s almost like asking where differences in racial prejudice, political views, religious preference, or sports team allegiances come from. Turns out we are influenced (all too easily) by family, friends, the media, our culture and environment, inaccurate stereotypes, and a host of factors. It’s really difficult to tease all this apart.
Rather than figure out where stigma begins, it’s easier to become more aware of what it isand when it occurs. Then we can do our best to educate others about how to reduce stigma and work toward ultimately eliminating it.
How do we become more aware of stigma? It’s usually easier to take a look at ourselves first before we try to change the rest of the world.
Here are 5 simple steps you can do as a new stigma fighter:
1. Don’t label people who have a mental illness.
Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “She’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say, “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” This is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.
2. Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.
Yes, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes from movies, such as that of the disturbed killer or the weird co-worker.
3. Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.
In a research study with British 14-year-olds, teens came up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, and the majority were negative. These terms are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about casually using “diagnostic” terms to describe everyday behavior, like “That’s my OCD,” or, “She’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, you quite likely may be offending someone and not be aware of it.
4. Don’t be insensitive or blame people with mental illness.
It would be silly to tell someone to just “buckle down” and “get over” cancer. The same applies to mental illness. Also, don’t assume that someone is okay just because they look or act okay or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.
5. Be a role model.
Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.
Former President Bill Clinton said it very well: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.