If you listen to any conversation about mental health, mental illness and addiction, it won’t be long until the term “stigma” comes up. Stigma has many definitions, but ultimately, it refers to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. In other words, it means the disrespectful, unfair or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave towards a group of people, in this case individuals experiencing a mental illness.
If you wonder where stigma comes from, then you’re not alone but when you think about it… you realize that it’s a complicated question. It’s almost like asking where do differences in political views, religious preferences, or sports team allegiances come from? We are largely influenced (way too easily) by our environment, our family, friends, the media and our culture, inaccurate stereotypes and a whole other factors.
Rather than trying to figure out where stigma begins, we should focus on becoming more aware of the myths and stereotypes that promote stigma against people with mental health challenges. Then we can do our best to educate others about how to reduce stigma and work towards ultimately eliminating it.
How to Reduce Stigma
- Know the facts. Educate yourself about mental health problems. Learn the facts instead of myths and stereotypes. Also, educational anti-stigma interventions are very important as it presents information with the goal of correcting misinformation or contradicting negative attitudes and beliefs.
- Be aware of your attitudes and behavior. It’s usually easier to look at ourselves first before we try to change the rest of the world. Being aware of prejudices and judgmental thinking can help stop labels, discrimination and stereotypes. See people beyond their mental illness; they have many other personal attributes that don’t disappear just because they also have a mental illness.
- Choose your words carefully. Language matters. The way we speak can affect the way other people think and speak. People are not diagnoses. Don’t say, “He’s bipolar or she’s schizophrenic.” Instead say “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” Also, say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” Don’t use hurtful or derogatory language.
- Don’t be afraid of people with mentally illness. Granted, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people who have a mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence.
- Focus on the positive. People who have a mental illness make valuable contributions to society. Their health problems are just one part of who they are.
- Be supportive. Treat people who have mental health challenges with dignity and respect. If you have family members, friends, neighbors or co-workers with substance use or mental health problems, support their choices and encourage their efforts to get well.
- Be a role model. Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Spread the word that treatment works, and recovery is possible. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Changing attitudes takes time, but intentionally repeating the right information is key, so keep getting the word out in your circle to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.