They say admitting you need help is the first step toward recovery—but it's not an easy one to take. Most people who live with mental illness will, at some point, be blamed for their condition. Their symptoms referred to as “a phase” or something they can get over. They’re accused of seeking attention. They’re illegally discriminated against when it comes to employment. This phenomenon is referred to as the mental health stigma—and it’s a highly problematic one.
“Mental health stigma encompasses a lot of misunderstanding, but essentially it’s the persistent perception that people with mental health disorders are strange, broken, different, or even dangerous,” says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, executive director of Newport Institute. “This stigma perpetuates the belief that individuals with mental health concerns should be minimized or condemned, and results in fewer people seeking help when they need it.”
The Impact of Mental Health Stigma
According to a study in World Pshychiatry, the impact of stigma on people with mental illness is twofold: "On one hand, they struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people."
Most people wouldn't hesitate to properly treat diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, but many still carry the painful belief that their depression, anxiety, or trauma is somehow less valid and deserving of care. Physical health is prioritized for most people, so why isn’t mental health treated the same way? Historically, mental health has always been viewed as secondary to physical health, evidenced in cultural misrepresentations of people with mental health concerns and disparity in treatment availability and funding compared to more traditional medical healthcare.
According to Perri Shaw Borish, MSS, founder of Whole Heart Maternal Mental Health, the problem is that too many people view those who go to therapy as weak. “Unless you grow up in a family culture where therapy is respected as a part of one's social and emotional learning, being in therapy is stigmatized as well,” says Borish. “Usually, by the time someone ends up on my couch, they’ve exhausted many other possibilities before giving themselves permission to be in therapy. The stigma itself is a deterrent to getting treatment—simply pushing through the shame and judgment to get there is a tremendous feat.”
It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly we’ve all been conditioned to think this way. Experts say that it comes from the idea that others’ feelings are more important than our own, and that there's shame in airing dirty laundry. They don’t want to be judged, especially by family members and friends, who might look down on them for their “faults.” We're pushed to hide our defects under the guise of respectability.
Media further enforces pressure on families to hide their flaws. Popular sitcoms, like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver, promoted the idea that being successful meant being the “perfect" American family. Social media, a platform where everyone feels the need to present an idealized version of themselves—lest someone think they are a failure—only drives the stigma home.
This perception has been embedded in our history spanning hundreds of years: “Countless negative cultural references, dating back decades or even longer, link mentally ill individuals with dangerous behavior and inability to fit in with society. Out of fear and a lack of understanding, people with mental health issues were sent to live in asylums or hospitals for behaving differently or saying things out of the ordinary. They were punished and traumatized, and it was easy to view them as deserving of their suffering,” says Dragonette.
Unfortunately, it usually takes a tragedy to change people’s minds, says Anita Kanti, author of Behaving Bravely: How to Mindshift Life's Challenges. “Take the recent suicides of Kate Spade, Robin Williams, and Anthony Bourdain, for instance. Showing the world that even rich celebrities who seem to have it all on paper were actually hurting woke people up to the widespread nature of our mental health problem.”
Coronavirus and Collective Trauma
The global pandemic, one of the world's most tragic events to date, has put us in a very unique position. For the first time in a long time, everyone is in the same boat. Several months into quarantine, we’re seeing the conversation behind mental health finally start to open up. People are posting publicly on social media about their increased feelings of stress, anxiety, and loneliness. When people call in to ask how you are, the answer is no longer a default “fine, and you?” People are starting to open up to the fact that they’re not doing OK, and that it’s totally fine—normal even—to feel the way they’re feeling.
According to Borish, this is called collective trauma. And this “collectivism” of the trauma helps to de-stigmatize mental health issues.
“With such large numbers of people currently experiencing these struggles, one silver lining of the pandemic could be increased understanding and compassion for mental health issues and therefore a reduction of long-held stigmas. We are now seeing more prominent figures acknowledging their own mental health struggles, which can help reduce shame and judgment,” says Dragonette.
Prioritizing Mental Health
As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all struggling with similar problems and fears, whether that means being anxious about the future, depressed about what we’re missing, worried about our economic outlook, or overwhelmed with various feelings of fear and panic. “It is therefore vital for us to continue creating space for one another, opening up dialogues about mental health, and raising awareness. We need to continue encouraging people to seek help when they need it, while also sharing coping strategies and prevention techniques.”
“It begins with self-awareness. For too long, most of us have rushed through our lives. COVID-19 disrupted that. Once we accept this situation bravely, we can begin to change it. Hopefully, this crisis will actually lead to some good. We will begin acknowledging how widespread mental health problems really are and how we can begin to heal,” adds Kanti.
So how can you work on prioritizing your mental health now? First, feel your feelings. Know that what you are feeling is totally OK. And understand that putting yourself first and taking the time to care for your mental wellness isn’t selfish, but essential to your well-being.
“Remember to check in with yourself throughout the day and empower yourself to take a break when you need it," says Dragonette. "Also, please go easy on yourself if you don’t do this perfectly. Many mental health problems are compounded by our own refusal to acknowledge what we are feeling. If you’re having a particularly hard day, it can feel like the hardest thing in the world to reach out to another human and yet that is often the connection we need the most. Be vulnerable when you can with safe people. Acknowledge that you are experiencing a trauma and try not to compare your experiences with that of others. And please remember that mental health providers are essential workers and are here to help you right now if you need extra support."
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to change this stigmatized situation fast. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. Fortunately, more people are starting to understand that mental health exists on a spectrum, and that we all struggle with mental health on some level in our lifetime. Most people can understand the experience of feeling depressed or anxious, whether or not they acknowledge this out loud.
“We are all experiencing a widespread traumatic event, and we are also experiencing the normal repercussions of trauma,” says Dragonette. “If we can express compassion for ourselves and others around this shared experience, it will go a long way to squashing the mental health stigma in the future.