May is mental health awareness month.
The aim of dedicating a month to this is to get people talking and help break down the stigma associated with mental illness. Because that’s what stigma does. It stops us from speaking up, it stunts discussion and creates a sentiment of discomfort and judgement. Stigma is insidious. It creeps in slowly as we form more and more opinions and misconceptions and eventually grows into something harmful and dangerous.
With mental illness, stigma creates fear and blame. Media sometimes portray people with a mental illness as erratic, volatile and dangerous. Many people with less easily perceived mental illnesses, such as depression, are often treated as though it is a choice; a behaviour that can be changed with willpower. We see stays in inpatient facilities as shameful. We urge people to get off medication in favour of yoga.
These attitudes get in the way of those struggling seeking help. Stigma is even present in the medical community. Mental health and psych training is often not sufficient. Emergency doctors and primary care physicians often lack the background to effectively support someone in a mental health crisis. Emergency responders are in a similar situation and the percentage of calls they answer that are mental health related is considerable. This is gradually becoming more of a priority but much more work needs to be done.
Stigma makes open, honest and compassionate conversation impossible. Here are ways, during the month of May and throughout the year, you can help combat stigma:
DO check in with loved ones and coworkers
DO set an example by normalizing emotional and mental struggles and talking about it
DO be an advocate for your own mental health when approaching medical professionals
DO educate yourself on mental illnesses and be responsible and informed with regard to the media you consume
DO familiarize yourself with the community resources available to you and share with others
DO react with empathy and compassion when someone discloses a mental health concern
DONT use stigmatizing or trivializing language such as ‘she’s crazy’, ‘the weather is so bipolar right now’
DONT offer medical advice if you are not qualified, ‘you should get off those meds, I know a great natural supplement’
DONT treat people as though they have a choice, ‘you should just snap out of it, if you got out more you’d feel better’
Together we can change the conversation. We can eliminate shame by humanizing mental illness. In North-America it affects 1/5 people in any given year.
Be a safe place, a comfort and a support. Mental illness looks different on everyone. We never know what someone is going through and being a beacon of hope can make all the difference.