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Surviving Mental Health Stigma

Working with social anxiety isn't a cure for social anxiety disorder, but working with the disorder has taught me a few things. Other people may look at social anxiety disorder and think that people just need to get over their irrational fears or worries and become productive members of society, especially when it comes to working. I was one of those people who wondered how I would ever be able to work considering the paralyzing anxiety I felt from having to deal with the public, using the phone, and other work-related things. I felt (and sometimes still do feel) the constant pressure of that stigma saying suck it up and go to work. So I did, and here's what I learned from working with social anxiety.
Celebrities' mental health stories help us see that anyone can have mental illness: this statement is not something that I can stress enough. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how much happiness there is in your life, or if you have a “reason” for being sick — sometimes you’re just sick, and that’s the long and the short of it. Celebrities' mental health stories go a long way toward showing that we're all susceptible to mental illness.
The effect of exercise on mental health and mental illness isn't what most people think. One of the go-to remedies for those who don’t understand mental illness is to suggest those who have a mental illness exercise as if it’s a cure. It’s often used in the argument that pharmaceuticals are bad by saying regular exercise is the only real cure. While being active can have a positive effect on some people, it’s still not a cure for mental illnesses. Because of that, the suggestion of exercise to fix them is very much a notion of stigma because of its oversimplification and misunderstanding of mental illness.
The idea of mental strength often plays into mental health stigma. Out of the many ways we endeavor to encourage people through tough periods of mental illness, encouragement to use mental strength is pointless. Many of these ways are phrases or words meant with the best intentions, but they can also be potentially harmful — or at least I’ve seen the harmful effects they’ve had. Of the number of platitudes people say, one I get stuck on is “stay strong.”
Is it possible to destigmatize mental illness by refusing to use the word "stigma?" If you’re having a discussion about mental illness, it’s almost inevitable someone will mention stigma. When talking mental health, stigma refers to the misinformed perceptions and ideas about mental illness and those with it. It’s a big component in why people feel ashamed to have a mental illness and suffer in silence instead of seeking mental health treatment and understanding that mental illness is just an illness. Since there is still widespread misinformation, it’s not surprising the word "stigma" comes up often. What is surprising, however, is that there are those who say stigma does not exist, we should stop using the word "stigma," and I’ve even seen the claim that it’s offensive. Can we destigmatize mental illness by not using the word "stigma?"
I’ve begun to wonder if current mental health awareness efforts are enough to fight stigma. The word "awareness" in relation to mental illness has a strange effect on me these days. On the one hand, I think awareness is great for helping people better understand the realities of mental illness and the people who live with it. On the other, I feel the word itself feels tired, overused, and almost ineffective as it seems to appear in many places, but somehow manages to lack the impact it could have. I'm not sure if mental health awareness efforts are enough.
Dehumanizing people with addiction is something many people do without thinking about it. For example, when someone says “addict,” there are probably a few images that readily come to mind and descriptors to go along with those images — crackhead, drunkard, nasty, degenerate, the list goes on. This is the stigma of mental illness at play as preconceived notions and dated ideas of what it means to have an addiction take over our perception. When we let that happen, we’re dehumanizing people with addiction. This happens with all kinds of addiction, too.
Using mental illnesses as insults is invalidating and harmful. These days, it’s hard to go far without coming across the topic of mental health and mental illness. Considering it’s still such a taboo subject that people shy away from, this seems like something we should be rejoicing over as advocates and activists — and I would, but for the fact that it’s still being spoken of in negative, stigmatizing words. Although people are mentioning mental illness seemingly more and more, all it’s doing it adding to the already existing stigma since mental illness is being used to insult people.
How we ask about a person's mental illness matters because language can stigmatize mental illness. At the core of stigmatizing mental health conversations, is the idea that mental illnesses are not real, legitimate illnesses. It’s one of the basics when talking about mental illness, and to some degree, it seems like we should be well past this statement by now. But we’re not. It’s not just naysayers of mental illness that make the mistake, either; in some cases, even those who have mental illness or know someone who does still don't know what to say to someone with a mental illness. They seem to want to think of mental illness as something other than a sickness and end up contributing to stigma in the questions they ask about a person's mental illness.
The idea of "normal" mental health affects me as someone who struggles with mental illness. I often fall prey to the idea that mental health is something I can only achieve by becoming more like “normal” people. In an age of health coaches and self-help gurus, it can be easy to believe that the ability to conform to a more widely accepted lifestyle is the answer to all mental health problems. Unfortunately, rather than offering a solution, the myth of normal mental health creates more stigma around mental illness.
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