May 3rd to 9th is Mental Health Awareness Week.
Because we can’t see mental illness, we often refuse to acknowledge it. We refuse to talk about it out loud and we refuse to allow people to be honest about what they experience. Someone’s brain chemistry doesn’t show itself on their skin, in their breathing or as a broken bone. And if it can’t be seen, it mustn’t be real. It is perceived as a choice, it is seen as a failure, it is seen as everything but a medical condition.
This is the stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma silences us. It stops us from speaking up. And the thing with stigma is it’s insidious. It creeps in as we form more and more opinions and misconceptions and eventually grows into something much more harmful and dangerous.
Awareness campaigns can be extremely powerful in combating this and when it comes to mental health, I believe raising awareness is necessary. Dedicating a week to mental health awareness brings this topic to the forefront of people’s minds and forces them to consider how it impacts their own lives. It sparks a conversation and helps people find the words to discuss something that is so stigmatized and often uncomfortable. When it comes to mental health and mental illness, we need to learn to be comfortable with openness. Awareness campaigns help equip people with the language to become safe spaces for mental illness, which in turn gives people permission to seek help. It reminds them they are worthy of that help, that they deserve support and that they are valuable humans.
That being said, awareness campaigns are only as powerful as the action and attitude change they inspire. It is our responsibility as members of our communities to make a concrete change, to take action and to better support each other. Without action, their reach becomes limited.
Here are 6 ways you can actively combat stigma.
1) Call people out when they use stigmatizing language:
People so often use mental health diagnoses flippantly, as punch lines or for effect. Remind people that liking their house clean does not equal having OCD. Remind them that joking about suicide invalidates the experience of people who are truly suicidal. The language we use sets the bar for the amount of respect and compassion we have with regard to a subject. When it comes to mental health, it’s important to remind non-judgemental and not to diminish the experiences of others by mentioning mental illnesses or disorders for a laugh.
2) Take your mental health days:
Every work place offers, or should offer, personal days as well as sick days. Don’t be afraid to take days off for your mental health, and call them that! By being honest about your mental health needs, you help reduce the stigma and open up the conversation. This will allow others who are struggling to seek the support they need and ask for help when necessary. Every company should foster a workplace culture where mental health is as ubiquitous in conversations about well-being as physical health is.
3) When you ask “How are you?”, mean it:
And wait for the answer. We often use “How are you?” as a greeting. We say it back and forth without truly listening for the answer and we often lie. It seems more socially acceptable to say we’re doing fine than to be honest. Next time you ask someone how they’re doing, wait for the answer and if you sense that they are not being completely upfront, make it clear that you’re there for support and an empathetic ear should they wish to talk about what they’re feeling.
4) Read up, do your research!:
Seek out articles, books and medical literature about different disorders and illnesses. If someone you love has a mental health diagnosis, educate yourself on that particular condition. Knowledge is power and when we educate ourselves on mental illness, we lose many misconceptions and do away with the myths that surround many disorders and illnesses. Do not rely on the sensationalized or romanticized perspective of mental illness that so much of the media offers us. Do some reading and equip yourself with the knowledge to better understand those in your life who face mental health concerns.
5) Normalize therapy and mental health treatment:
If you see a therapist, talk about it! I’m not telling you to share every deep, dark secret you’ve expressed to them, or even to talk about what you’re working on specifically. But do mention you’re seeing a therapist when relevant. Normalize taking care of our mental health the same way we talk about physical medical care and never find that awkward or uncomfortable.
6) Be respectfully curious and open-minded:
If someone in your life has a mental health condition, and they are comfortable sharing, ask them questions. Be respectful and compassionate. Communicate to them that you are here for support. But also let them know you want to understand better. You want to know what their experience is. These honest and open conversations allow people with mental illnesses to be heard, to be validated and to find connection with people who often misunderstand them. If someone mentions a mental health challenge, don’t shy away, don’t feel awkward. Support them. Aim to understand better. Ask them how you can help. Talking about mental illness is the best way to combat stigma and it could likely save a life.
Mental health awareness is key to eliminating the stigma surrounding it, and when awareness campaigns are the catalyst and the tools for concrete action, they become even more powerful.