The Cruel Truth About Mental Health Stigma
I remember the first time I encountered it.
I was young, maybe 8 or 9, and it happened shortly after an uncle of mine had a sudden explosive outburst during a family get-together. I remember hearing shouting and the sound of dishes shattering from the next room, then seeing glimpses of other family members shushing and steering my uncle away, shutting the door behind them. My uncle didn’t come around for a long while after that; my sisters and I were simply told he went on “vacation” and it wasn’t discussed any further. I can still remember the look on my cousin’s face when she finally told me the truth awhile later: that her father had a “mental breakdown” that night and he was sent away to an inpatient facility because his mind was “sick.” As you can imagine, this was an unnerving, terribly confusing experience, especially at a time when these kinds of things weren’t discussed. In fact, to this day, my family has never brought up the incident. My uncle shows up to family functions and we continue on as if it never happened.
It happened again in college, this time when one of my favorite music artists pushed his affair with drugs a little too far, leading to an overdose and his untimely death. My heart is still confused and devastated, and it breaks for the person we lost: creative, talented, smart, composing music that made people smile, dance, and brought them together. We lost a good man that day, and at that time, I was angry because no one talked about it. He was simply gone, and I could not understand why.
In both of these sad situations, and in many similar instances in between, I have seen the reality of mental illness cruelly played out in the forum of public opinion:
“His father was kind of strange anyway.”
“Wow, he’s really crazy now.”
“Why couldn’t she just stop being sad?”
And, my personal favorite, “There’s just something wrong with her; I would never want to be her!”
I’m sure you have a few of your own to add to this pile. They’re not pretty.
The Power of Fear
So, all of this begs the questions: Why is this? How did it get this way? Why aren’t we more enlightened on the issue of mental illness than we are?
First, we are a deeply social species, and we all want to be part of the tribe. Anything that makes us different, unlovable, “less than,” or unpopular risks our membership in the group -- and nobody wants to be left out. This kind of “mean girls” view of this dynamic is not exclusive to women either. The effects of shame, alienation, and shunning are everywhere, and we all bear responsibility for doing our share to be inclusive.
Second, we are all, more or less, instinctually fearful of the “other,” whether he or she is of another race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or -- in the darker regions of our psyches -- someone we recognize in ourselves.
In addition, specific groups are even more subject to the mental health stigma. For example, while there is robust evidence showing that men suffer from mental health conditions at similar rates to women and four out of five people who die by suicide are men, countless men still experience difficulty with even using the words “mental health” in relation to how they feel. In recent years, society has begun to acknowledge the large role that gender norms, social taboos, and cultural contexts play in creating this environment, but there are other factors involved as well. This includes awareness strategies not being targeted well to men, the different ways men view help, and the different ways men express mental health problems, which may lead to mis/under-diagnosing.
So what’s the solution to all of this?
A professor in my graduate program once addressed my class and made it a point to let us know that, in her opinion, there is no distinction between us therapists and our clients. To her, we are all broken and are carrying baggage in one way or another, a seemingly grim observation mitigated by her abiding optimism that everyone could be healed through the grace of human relationships and by treating all people with respect, compassion, and dignity.
If that solution seems lofty, the National Alliance on Mental Illness breaks it down into small actions we can do each day, starting now:
- Talk openly about mental health.
- Educate yourself and others about the struggles with mental health.
- Be conscious of language.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental health.
- Show compassion for those struggling with mental health.
- Choose empowerment over shame.
- Be honest about treatment.
- Let others know when they’re being stigmatizing.
- Don’t harbor self-stigma.
The Bottom Line
Stigma about feeling bad, “having issues,” or just plain being unhappy is something that defines us all. It’s just what it means to be human. The sooner we can accept, with love and compassion, this reality in ourselves and others, the sooner we can help one another get what we all need.
Maigen Pham, LPC
Maigen has worked with children, adolescents, adults, and couples – in addition to providing behavioral therapy to children with autism. Her approach to counseling is holistic, eclectic, and collaborative in order to help individualize sessions for each person. Additionally, as a Certified Sex Therapist-Candidate, Maigen provides therapy for individuals experiencing problems with sexual intimacy.