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Surviving Mental Health Stigma

Laura A. Barton
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?"
Laura A. Barton
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.
Laura A. Barton
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.
Laura A. Barton
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.
Laura A. Barton
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.
Rachel Miles
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.
Laura A. Barton
No one can diagnose an eating disorder by looking at someone's body type; yet, when we think about eating disorders, there are probably two images that pop into our minds: Someone who’s painfully thin and another person who’s largely overweight. The problem with that kind of thinking is instead of seeing eating disorders as mental illnesses, we see them as body types. As harmless as it may seem, if you try to diagnose an eating disorder by body type, it is a form of mental health stigma.
Rachel Miles
Sometimes there is no way to avoid feeling like a burden because of your mental illness. Whether it is for emotional, physical, or financial reasons, the reality of mental health problems can be difficult to bear for both those who suffer from mental illness and those who consider themselves caretakers of those who struggle. For people who have a mental illness, feeling like a burden comes with a tremendous amount of self-stigma that is reinforced by the silent stigma of those who must bear the weight of the “burden” that mental illness causes.
Laura A. Barton
Some people with mental illness isolate themselves to feel protected from mental health stigma. Because stigma labels someone as an outlier, many people withdraw when feeling stigmatized for their mental health. Apart from the stigma of mental illness and self-stigma making us feel poorly about ourselves in general, seeing stigmatizing ideas all over the media, hearing them spoken to us, or even thinking them to ourselves can amplify the sense of isolation that mental illness already brings. We need ways to counter the isolation that mental health stigma brings as loneliness can lead to hopelessness and negatively impact recovery.
Rachel Miles
As exciting as the holiday season can be, it can also bring up self-stigma about mental health problems. Spending more time with friends and family can lead to a lot of comparisons that may cause shame about one’s position in life. As someone who deals with mental health problems, I sometimes feel like a failure because I think I should be doing so much more, but mental illness has gotten in the way. Dealing with mental health self-stigma is always hard, and the holidays tend to be particularly difficult.