How to Break the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted much more than the physical health of people who have the virus. It has also impacted the mental health of many people, including those who are dealing with the illness, those who have lost a loved one, caregivers, and people who are impacted by stay-at-home orders and physical distancing restrictions. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States from April-June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. This sharp increase in mental health concerns has brought to light an issue that behavioral health providers have been fighting against for years – the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.

Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination

Mental health and substance use disorder diagnoses are more prevalent than heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, migraines, osteoporosis and asthma, yet misconception and misinformation have left many people with mental illness and substance use disorders afraid to talk about their experiences or seek help. Yet more than half of people with mental illness don’t seek help for their disorders. The question of why there is a stigma around mental health problems and why people don’t seek care likely has several answers. Lack of knowledge, fear, and an inability to see ‘proof’ of mental illness are all factors that can perpetuate the stigma. There is no stigma related to an injury or diagnosis that others can see. Mental illness, on the other hand, often has symptoms that cannot be seen easily by the outside world. Some people who do not have firsthand experience or training with mental illness hold on to the erroneous belief that it is something people can control.

Stigma around mental illness is also an issue in some diverse racial and ethnic communities, and it can be a major barrier to people from those cultures accessing mental health care. For example, in some Asian cultures, seeking professional help for mental illness may be counter to cultural values of strong family, emotional restraint and avoiding shame. Other groups, including those in the African American community, have a strong distrust of the mental healthcare system, which can also be a barrier to seeking help. 

Many people keep their struggles with mental health hidden because they fear what others will think, which perpetuates the belief that it is shameful to struggle with mental health. The American Medical Association (AMA) found that even physicians who are trained to work with a wide range of patients often unintentionally reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness by avoiding the topic with patients. Avoidance and silence around the topic of mental health sends a message that people who are dealing with mental health issues should feel ashamed, or that they have failed in some way. Pushing past the fear of what others will think is a serious obstacle to getting help for many people who struggle with mental health conditions.   

Eliminating the Stigma around Mental Health

The first step in eliminating the stigma around mental health issues is to start being open about the topic. The AMA recommends that clinicians stop avoiding discussions about mental illness and start including mental health screenings as a part of routine care. Experts also point out that the way clinicians talk about mental healthcare is important. One campaign aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding mental health is Stamp Out Stigma. The goal of Stamp Out Stigma is to “challenge each of us to transform the dialogue on mental health and addiction from a whisper to a conversation.”  An important part of the #stampoutstigma campaign is encouraging people to share their stories about mental health and addiction recovery to reduce the stigma that surrounds these topics. 

There are some positive trends when it comes to creating a more open discussion about mental health. In the past few years – and especially during the COVID pandemic – there has been an increase in celebrities who have opened up about their own mental health. Celebrities such as Jewell, Chris Rock, Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendez, and Kerry Washington have all spoken out about their personal struggles with mental health during the pandemic. Hearing celebrities talk about selfcare and getting professional help with mental health issues can help give others the courage to seek help.  

Education and Awareness

Mental health professionals can help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health by providing peer support and education. Much of the stigma related to mental illness comes from a lack of knowledge. Increasing knowledge and awareness can help reduce the stigma. Providing education tools to loved ones, and listening to the struggles and successes of others who are in a similar situation can help reduce the stigma for someone who is dealing with a mental illness.  

Mental healthcare providers have been fighting against the stigma surrounding mental health for years. There are several times throughout the year when mental healthcare providers come together as a unified voice to educate the public about mental health topics and attempt to eliminate stigma around these topics. Stamp Out Stigma provides an extensive calendar of events with the focus on creating awareness about specific types of mental illness. Special, worldwide events are also supported through various events, including Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is held the first week in October, and Mental Health Awareness Month, which is observed in May. 

The lack of knowledge and fear surrounding mental health issues are not going to disappear overnight. However, there are some encouraging trends that are providing hope for those who want to break the stigma surrounding mental health. The mental health of US citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic is now part of the national conversation. Continuing that conversation is a key part of breaking the stigma and making it easier for people who are struggling with their mental health to get help. Every voice can make a difference when it comes to eliminating the stigma related to mental health problems and mental health care.

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