“Everyone has scars, they just aren’t as visible as yours.”
One of the biggest things in the way of proper mental health treatment and recovery has nothing to do with medication or therapy or how to afford care.
It’s the stigma.
When something like mental illness is stigmatized, it’s kept hidden. No one wants to talk about it, admit it, discuss it, or even acknowledge that it exists. And the things we don’t talk about we inherently understand are things that are shameful.
Shame is toxic. It helps no one — not those suffering from mental illnesses, not the loved ones who surround them, and not the general public. Here are six concrete ways we can all start to break the stigma of mental illness:
1. Be honest and personal
If you’ve struggled with a mental health issue and come out the other side, don’t hide it. Be brave and bring it out into the open as much as possible (as long as you feel safe doing).
You don’t have to shove it in people’s faces, but for example, don’t gloss over it when you’re describing your history. “I moved out of San Francisco because I was unhappy” is not the same as, “I went through a severe depression for nearly a year. I was lucky enough to get the right help, but that’s one of the main reasons I left — I realized the environment in San Francisco was contributing to my depression.”
Or, “It might surprise you to know that I’m actually a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. That’s why I was addicted to painkillers — I needed them to numb me from what was underneath.”
Don’t share anything you’re not ready to. If you’re still in the process of recovery and something feels particularly tender to share, keep it private. But if you feel strong and ready, share your experience truthfully and fearelessly.
You are a powerful beacon of truth when you share your personal experience.
You make it safe for others to talk about their mental health issues by being honest about your own (or your experience as someone who loves someone with a mental health challenge).
Then, if you notice someone is particularly interested in talking about it, ask a few questions and learn more about them. Listen carefully. Ask another question. This person may have never had the space to share their story. Give them the gift of being a compassionate listener — it may do more than you will ever know.
3. Keep educating yourself
One of the best ways to get rid of stigma is to be an advocate, and that starts with understanding the facts. A lot changes as science and psychological research is conducted and new perspectives are being shared, so it’s important to keep up.
For example, there are a lot of people with autism (and those who love them) speaking out now about how autism isn’t actually a disease – it’s just that the brains of those with autism work differently than others. However, there are alternate perspectives from parents of children with autism and others who challenge just such an assertion.
The important thing isn’t to know what’s “right,” but to grasp that there are many shades of gray, and they’re all valid. Keep educating yourself. Be open.
4. Read and recommend books with mental health themes
Learning about mental health and mental illness doesn’t have to be boring or dry — there are a lot of riveting reads about people with mental illnesses. Just a few:
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison (Bipolar Disorder)
Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder)
Speaking of sadness: Depression, disconnection, and the meanings of illness by D.A. Karp (Depression, described in interviews with 50 patients)
5. Normalize therapy
If you get therapy, don’t just say you have an “appointment.” Be straightforward and say you’re going to see your therapist. This is a way of making it safe for others to talk about their own experiences with therapy (and why they get it).
If you got therapy in the past and it really helped you with something, mention it when there’s context for it. “This is something I’ve really gotten out of therapy — that it’s healthy for me to actually feel my emotions instead of repressing them. I’m proud of how far I’ve come in doing that.”
The more you mention therapy (even in passing), the more it makes it normal. Like going to the doctor. Something that can be in each of our lives and help us — not something to be stigmatized.
6. Freely and loudly name and share resources
See a post on Facebook about addiction? Tell people about Rehab.com, the most comprehensive list of rehab facilities in the U.S.
See something about therapy being too expensive? Share resources you know can help, like sliding scale clinics or lower-cost chat therapy like Talkspace.
Anything you know about, share, and keep sharing. You never know who is watching and listening. They may not say anything at the party or Like the post. You may never know their name or who they are. But you might have changed a life forever — or even saved it.