When Tina Collins first started feeling depressed and anxious as a child, her family adopted what she refers to as magical thinking, saying, “Oh, that’s just how Tina is, she’ll be fine.” They had seen other family members deal with mental illness and the stigma that came with it, says Collins, now 50, and didn’t want her to suffer. “I felt pressure to deny being depressed, and I made an effort to hide it,” she adds.
Unlike most physical ailments, mental illness often comes with an added burden—the feeling that there's something shameful about the disease, that it's somehow your fault, or that you should just be able to “snap out of it.” That stigma can not only keep those with mental illness from asking for the accommodations that would help them succeed at school and at work, but it can also keep them from seeking the treatment they need, says Katrina Gay, a spokesperson and acting chief development officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness don’t get any help, and many say it’s because they’re worried about bring treated differently or being discriminated against. In another poll, half of those surveyed were concerned about discussing their mental illness at work and one-third were worried they would be retaliated against if they sought help. That stigma often starts in school, where the resources to help those with mental illness can be spotty and the stigma attached can keep children and parents from asking for them in the first place. “The rates of school failure are higher for those with mental health conditions than for anyone else,” Gay says.
Gay points out that there are three types of mental health stigma:
Societal stigma: “This kind of stigma comes from the judgments of others in our collective community,” says Gay. This can manifest itself in the way characters are depicted in the media (think of all the movies like Joker or The Silence of the Lambs, in which a violent character is depicted as mentally ill), in the language that's used to describe mental illness (She’s nuts! He’s a psycho!), and in a general avoidance of the topic.
Internal stigma: This is the voice inside your head saying, ‘Why can’t I be like everyone else? Something must be wrong with me.’ “Internal stigma isn't always conscious, but it can be so debilitating and such a barrier to reaching out and try to get help,” says Gay. One study showed that the greater the levels of self-stigma, the poorer the person’s recovery after two years.
Institutional stigma: This may be the most damaging of all—in the way that mentally ill people are treated by hospitals, schools, insurance companies, workplaces, and even the criminal justice system, says Gay. “Institutional stigma happens when people go to the emergency room to get help and are left alone and not treated right away, or when a parent seeks help for a child and finds that therapy is not covered by insurance.”
A Changing Attitude
One positive to come out of the pandemic is that the wave of depression and anxiety that it touched off (it's estimated that the rates of depression tripled over the past year) has made talking about mental health no longer seem taboo, says Gay. She adds that calls to NAMI’s helpline have increased over the last year, as people look for info about not only helping themselves, but for helping others.
It also helps that so many celebrities, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Demi Lovato, Zendaya, and even The Rock himself, Dwayne Johnson, have spoken publicly about struggling with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Hopefully, we don’t just go back to how it was before, and we continue having these conversations,” says Gay.
Here are a few important steps you can take to overcome the stigma, whether you’re dealing with mental health issues yourself or supporting someone you love:
First and foremost, don’t allow judgment of others—or yourself—to keep you from looking for help through therapy or medication. Ask your physician for a referral to a mental health professional.
The more we talk about mental health—in person, online, in social media—the more other people will realize they are not alone. This May, for Mental Health Month, NAMI is encouraging everyone to share their personal stories about mental health, with the hashtag #notalone. “We want people to post about how they take care of themselves—whether it’s taking their puppy for a walk, getting their hands in the dirt, or taking their medication—and then challenge someone else to share,” Gay says. “One of the biggest consequences of stigma is loneliness, and if we can feel like we're not alone in our struggle, that's a giant step toward recovery.”
Join a Support Group
Collins found that, in addition to therapy and medication, talking in a group setting helped her accept, understand, and deal with her illness. Find in-person and online support groups through NAMI and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
If you see a politician, TV show, or celebrity making derogatory or untrue statements about mental illness, make your voice heard by writing a letter or posting about it—every voice matters.
Collins, who decided to speak publicly (using her real name in this article) says that we can only solve a problem by admitting it exists and getting help to deal with it. “You may find that other people are relieved when you admit it, for they may have been suffering in silence, too,” she says. “You will find you are not alone.”
Originally published on Happify Daily