Breaking Down Mental Health Stigma

May 26, 2022

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A person struggling with mental illness can often feel alone. Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorder, are not uncommon. Data suggests about 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020. 

For most of human history, seeking care for mental health has been viewed negatively. People have disapproved or shamed those who show signs of or seek help for mental illness. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in open conversation about mental health concerns. 

Stigma around mental health is changing.  

What is stigma? 

There are several kinds of stigma around mental health. Self-stigma is when someone with a mental illness feels like there is something wrong with him or her because of it. Public stigma is when other people have negative attitudes toward people with mental illness. Institutional stigma is the system that separates mental health care from physical health care. 

Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness have been working to end shame around mental health. Individuals and companies can take a pledge to be stigma free to show support for people with mental illness. 

“These campaigns have done a lot of good. I see it even in my children’s school, where they have a curriculum around emotions and bullying,” says Dr. April Richardson, a psychiatrist and medical director with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. “All of that education and discussion reduces stigma.” 

How is stigma changing? 

During the pandemic, rates of mental health conditions rose dramatically. Opioid and substance use also increased. 

“There have been many more people who have experienced mental health symptoms. The trauma of going through the pandemic and the secondary consequences caused people to feel more isolated and put a lot of stress on folks,” she says. 

Generational changes have also shifted how comfortable people are with talking about emotional well-being. Younger people use social media platforms to openly discuss the topic. 

“More people are talking about it. With more people expressing that they have mental health concerns, it makes other people feel more comfortable disclosing their own or talking about the subject with others,” Richardson says. 

More employers are addressing mental health and burnout as employees push for mental health care. 

How do we end stigma? 

Today, more people are talking about mental health publicly. Videos go viral on social media platforms with open dialogue about depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and substance use disorder. 

“You have to get it out there. Talk about it. Get people comfortable with the idea. Mental illness is just like any other physical condition,” Richardson says. “It isn’t a weakness.” 

While the conversation around emotional well-being may have changed overall, there is still work to do in certain populations. Some groups or cultures have different perceptions of mental health. For example, 63 percent of Black people believe a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness. Similar ideas exist in other minority communities. 

How can someone handle self-stigma? 

Some people may struggle internally with seeking treatment for mental illness out of fear or shame of what others might think of them. Often this kind of self-talk can keep someone from seeking treatment. 

“Sometimes people will self-medicate or turn to substance use. Or stigma can lead to bad situations where someone with severe mental illness delays treatment and develops suicidal thoughts or makes attempts,” Richardson says. “This kind of stigma needs to be addressed in a global way.” 

What can people do to break the stigma around mental health care? 

Continuing the conversation about mental health care is important to breaking stigma. Use respectful language and take care not to speak negatively when discussing mental health.

“Ask questions and feel comfortable discussing it with your friends, family or work communities,” Richardson says. “Some people think that asking someone about suicide will cause them to become suicidal. That is not the case, and in fact, only 54 percent of people in one study discussed suicidal thoughts with their family, peers and/or spouses. If you are concerned, ask the question.”

Avoid language that portrays mental illness as a weakness, blames someone for his or her illness, shames someone for an illness or refers to those with mental illnesses as dangerous. 

Is there a stigma around seeking help? 

There are still negative ideas about getting help from professionals for mental health conditions. Someone might be open about his or her anxiety and depression but still unlikely to seek treatment. Others might self-medicate or turn to other substances to treat their mental health conditions. 

There is a difference between talking to family and friends about emotional well-being and talking to a trained professional. 

“I would remind anyone who is suffering that, when you see a therapist or counselor, that person is specifically trained to deal with mental health and he or she is there to help support you,” Richardson says. 

Why is it important that people get help for mental health conditions? 

It is OK not to be OK. It is OK to ask for help. Mental health conditions are common and a normal part of life. Not treating mental health, as one would a physical condition, can result in great harm. 

People who suffer from mental health conditions tend to take less care of their physical health. These conditions can affect the ability to function normally and can result in absences from work or school. Some conditions lead to suicidal thoughts, which can be lethal or dangerous if left untreated. 

“Not addressing mental illness can have long-term consequences,” Richardson says. “Some people think they can tackle these issues themselves and they do not need to seek help. But you can’t muscle yourself out of hypertension or diabetes. You can make lifestyle changes that might help you control a disorder, but that kind of physical condition needs to be treated. The same is true for mental health. It is a disease of the brain that needs to be treated by a professional.”  

If you are unsure if you need help, talk to your doctor or other health care provider. There are many virtual and in-person treatment options available. BlueCross members can call the number on the back of their ID cards to find more resources.

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