Surviving Mental Health Stigma

How we ask about a person's mental illness matters because language can stigmatize mental illness. At the core of stigmatizing mental health conversations, is the idea that mental illnesses are not real, legitimate illnesses. It’s one of the basics when talking about mental illness, and to some degree, it seems like we should be well past this statement by now. But we’re not. It’s not just naysayers of mental illness that make the mistake, either; in some cases, even those who have mental illness or know someone who does still don't know what to say to someone with a mental illness. They seem to want to think of mental illness as something other than a sickness and end up contributing to stigma in the questions they ask about a person's mental illness.
The idea of "normal" mental health affects me as someone who struggles with mental illness. I often fall prey to the idea that mental health is something I can only achieve by becoming more like “normal” people. In an age of health coaches and self-help gurus, it can be easy to believe that the ability to conform to a more widely accepted lifestyle is the answer to all mental health problems. Unfortunately, rather than offering a solution, the myth of normal mental health creates more stigma around mental illness.
No one can diagnose an eating disorder by looking at someone's body type; yet, when we think about eating disorders, there are probably two images that pop into our minds: Someone who’s painfully thin and another person who’s largely overweight. The problem with that kind of thinking is instead of seeing eating disorders as mental illnesses, we see them as body types. As harmless as it may seem, if you try to diagnose an eating disorder by body type, it is a form of mental health stigma.
Sometimes there is no way to avoid feeling like a burden because of your mental illness. Whether it is for emotional, physical, or financial reasons, the reality of mental health problems can be difficult to bear for both those who suffer from mental illness and those who consider themselves caretakers of those who struggle. For people who have a mental illness, feeling like a burden comes with a tremendous amount of self-stigma that is reinforced by the silent stigma of those who must bear the weight of the “burden” that mental illness causes.
Some people with mental illness isolate themselves to feel protected from mental health stigma. Because stigma labels someone as an outlier, many people withdraw when feeling stigmatized for their mental health. Apart from the stigma of mental illness and self-stigma making us feel poorly about ourselves in general, seeing stigmatizing ideas all over the media, hearing them spoken to us, or even thinking them to ourselves can amplify the sense of isolation that mental illness already brings. We need ways to counter the isolation that mental health stigma brings as loneliness can lead to hopelessness and negatively impact recovery.
As exciting as the holiday season can be, it can also bring up self-stigma about mental health problems. Spending more time with friends and family can lead to a lot of comparisons that may cause shame about one’s position in life. As someone who deals with mental health problems, I sometimes feel like a failure because I think I should be doing so much more, but mental illness has gotten in the way. Dealing with mental health self-stigma is always hard, and the holidays tend to be particularly difficult.
You may want to share your mental health story, but feel afraid even though many people have opened up about mental illness. We know that talking about mental health encourages others to do so as well. That sense of community and having a precedent of someone else talking about mental illness may have paved the way for you. However, seeing the negative reactions stories about mental illness have a habit of getting can be a deterrent. Mental health stigma can cause a lot of fear and anxiety. Here are some tips on how to get past that fear of stigma when you want to share your mental health story.
While social media can be a great outlet for raising mental health awareness, oversharing your mental illness struggles may attract unwanted stigma. Usually, this comes from people who already have preconceived, stigmatizing ideas about mental illness. Even so, oversharing your mental illness details online can actually generate more stigma. It turns out there may be a fine line between raising mental health awareness and oversharing your mental illness struggle.
News coverage that stigmatizes mental illness often occurs after events like mass shootings and other tragedies. The reporters often bring up mental health and how that may have played a part in what happened. Whether or not there is even any initial evidence of mental illness, the fact that someone could commit such an atrocity invokes assumptions of mental instability. People then tend to associate that idea with mental illness as a blanket statement, despite how complex and different individual mental illnesses are. With these conversations inevitably comes misinformation and stigma, and when these news stories saturate our social media and even traditional media sources, it can be tough to contend with as someone with a mental illness. News coverage that stigmatizes mental illness creates problems for society and individuals, and here are two ways it happens.
I avoided Student Disability Services in college because of mental health stigma. Although I was diagnosed with various mental health conditions as a teen, it wasn’t until college that I truly realized the debilitating effect mental illness could have on my life. I was highly resistant to the idea when an on-campus counselor first advised me to make an appointment with my university’s Student Disability Services department. Sure, I needed help, but I didn’t need that kind of help.