May is Mental Health Awareness Month (can you believe we’re already to May?!), and the Social Justice Action Team takes mental health very seriously. For me, breaking the stigma around mental health is a very personal endeavor, as I have struggled with my emotional and mental well-being for many years now.
There are many topics surrounding mental health that I can talk about here, but the one I want to focus on the most is stigma. Why is stigma important and what can we do about it?
Stigma is misinformed judgment. We see stigma around us every day: race, sexuality, disability, gender, age, job title, health, and appearance are just a few examples of where stigma shows up in our culture. It’s toxic, and it’s dangerous.
The stigma around mental health is that since the illness is “invisible”, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s made up, it’s all in your head… which, of course it’s in your head; it’s a mental illness, where else would it be? Actually, mental illness affects many functions in your body overall, so it’s not all in your head; it’s everywhere in your body, but it originates in your brain.
These made up ideas about mental illness end up creating fear in the person who’s suffering: fear of judgement, rejection, ridicule, and more. So, what do they do? They keep it all inside and suffer in silence, creating a façade that things are okay when in fact they are not. Unfortunately, that silence can kill.
It’s like most things in life; when we need help, we’re supposed to ask for it. If we don’t ask for it, we suffer more. And if we suffer for long enough on our own, things get significantly worse, and worse, and worse, until we do whatever we can to end or ease the suffering. For those who struggle in silence with mental illness, suicide can seem like the answer.
So, what can we do about stigma?
Normalize the conversation. Talk about it, tell your story, call it what it is. I recently read something that said, “depression is not a bad word”, and that’s the truth. We get nervous calling a mental illness what it is, but if we use the actual terms (depression, anxiety, bi-polar, etc.), we normalize the illness. Dancing around the actual title creates an idea that it’s frowned upon to talk about the illness.
Create a no judgment environment. Listen to someone when they open up to you. Don’t assume anything, and don’t tell the person how they should feel or act. It’s easy to do this without even realizing it; I suggest looking around online or in town for free trainings that teach you how to be a safe, active listener for those who decide to open up to you.
Make resources more accessible to individuals who are struggling. Mental health resources are insanely expensive, hard to find, and not always covered by insurance. I started treatment for an eating disorder last October. It cost about $700 a day. After three weeks, my insurance decided I didn’t need that level of care anymore, according to their standards that actually had nothing to do with the mental part of my disorder. I was forced down to a lower level of care, because of course I couldn’t pay $700 a day. I ended up paying for a better insurance out of pocket so I could continue to get the level of care I needed.
I’m very lucky to be able to afford the second health insurance, but most people are not. What do they do when they can’t get the treatment they need because insurance decides they don’t need it? I encourage you to take a look at your insurance policy and delve into the mental health services part of it, if your insurance even has one, and see what the coverage looks like. For example, once I took a closer look at my old insurance, I learned that it would only cover 30 sessions of therapy a year, meaning if I went once a week for every week of the year, there would be 22 sessions they wouldn’t pay for.
If we can break the stigma and normalize the conversation around mental health, we can bring more awareness to the issue. If people see how prominent mental illness really is, and how much it affects the individual’s well-being, and therefore society’s well-being as a whole, we can get the attention of the higher-ups and start demanding change.
So, let’s break the stigma. Let’s be the voice. Let’s be the change.