I’m a firm believer that everyone has a choice in life to either stand up for what they believe in or to simply be quiet. When I was diagnosed with depression (and later ADHD), I felt incredibly alone. Nobody in my immediate family understood, and my friends, though supportive, didn’t know how to help me at the time. From that isolation, I began to seek out others who could relate to what I was going through, and hopefully learn from their experiences. That’s when my tribe began to take shape, and my life began to change. But it wasn’t without its risks.
Mental health disorders are one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized health issues in our country. Mental health touches all genders, races, and socioeconomic levels. There is no place you can run to hide from the possibility that you or your loved ones may have mental health needs that must be addressed, even if they are only temporary. But unfortunately, many times people who are in need of help find themselves isolated, ostracized, and alone.
This can leave people to feel like they only have a few options: suffer in silence, seek treatment in secret, or expose yourself to the criticism of people who aren’t interested in understanding your plight. There are those who still believe that mental health issues are a figment of our imagination. Some believe it is a matter of willpower that could be changed through the power of the mind. Others believe that people who suffer from mental illnesses are just looking for attention. None of these could be further from the truth.
So, the question is: What do we do to fix these stigmas and misconceptions? Well, there is no overnight solution. It can and will take time to correct decades of misinformation and even discrimination. It won’t be easy, but I have a vision of a world in which none of us have to suffer alone ever again. In this ideal world, we will be able to get mental health care as easily as we get care for aches, pains, and sniffles. I truly do believe it is achievable.
Here are a few ways I think we can start.
You cannot combat what you don’t understand, so let’s start there. How much do you know about mental health, either from your own experiences or someone else’s? There are many opinions in this world, and we all hold them, but there is no reason to have an uneducated opinion. There are many resources to help you better understand the complexity of mental health: books, scientific research, advocacy organizations, first-hand testimonials (like this one), and podcasts to name a few.
Go find out what it is like to live with these types of disorders and how you can help the people who are struggling to live with them. When you take the time to educate yourself on these issues and disorders, you are better able to combat the stigma when you hear it. When you gently educate someone, it can change everything for them and the people they come into contact with from then on.
Be a safe place
Living with a mental illness isn’t pretty. Some of our stories are difficult to hear; others humiliating to admit. In my opinion, there is nothing more helpful in combating mental health stigma than just giving people a safe place where they can come talk about their stuff. When people with mental health issues are surrounded by others who are able to relate, it becomes so much easier to open up. When you provide those safe spaces, you help take the fear out of asking for help, and let others know that their condition is nothing to be ashamed of.
Share your story
If you have had an experience with a mental health disorder, consider sharing your experiences with others if you are able. It doesn’t matter what your story sounds like — whether you’re fighting and winning the battle against depression, or still struggling. Just knowing that there are others out there who are going through the same thing can offer a huge sense of support. That’s a bit part of why I started my online community. There are people living with ADHD and depression who tell me that I am an inspiration to them, and I know that it isn’t always because I’m doing anything particularly inspiring. Rather, by just being me and raising my voice, I am making it easier to imagine a life in which they too can succeed despite their own challenges.
Know your resources
You often see resources posted online about crisis hotlines, but what about ongoing support before things reach crisis-level? Please understand that I’m not knocking those resources — they are absolutely necessary. But I’m also of the mind that it is equally important that we offer support to people before they are in crisis as well. Read up on different resources — that might be a local organization or even an online group — and share those freely when you can. If you’re able to, support the work those organizations and groups do. That might mean volunteering your time, donating money or supplies, or even attending an awareness event. There are lots of ways to get involved.
The bottom line
Combatting mental health stigma is not a one-person job, and it may take time to see real change in our culture. But even small steps or behaviors, when multiplied, can have a huge impact.
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
DEPR-US-NP-00063 MAY 2019