Oct 5, 2019

Mental Illness Awareness Week: How You Can Help Fight The Stigma



Mental illness affects millions nationwide. Despite how far-reaching mental illness is, there is still a stigma that sometimes surrounds people who suffer from it. Fortunately, health organizations and individuals advocate for these issues year-round and work especially hard during awareness days. 

Each year, the first week of October (Oct. 6-12th, 2019) is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) raise awareness to help fight the stigma that surrounds mental health. 
image:pixabay.com/illustrations/mental-health-mental-illness-women-1420801
Mental Illness by the Numbers

Mental illness affects Americans at devastating rates. According to NAMI, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, yet only 43.3% received treatment in 2018. In addition 19.3% of adults with mental illness experience a co-occurring substance use disorder.

On the other hand, substance use disorders change brain chemistry, also making people more susceptible to mental illness and increasing the reluctance to seek help. Unfortunately, 11.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness didn’t even have health insurance coverage in 2018. Sadly, mental illness is one of the leading causes of suicide.

People who suffer from mental illness can experience an extreme decline in their overall wellbeing. After all, mental illness can make day to day life terribly difficult. Rates of unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration are all higher among people who suffer from mental illness.

Similarly, people with mental illness are more likely to develop metabolic diseases compared to the general population.

Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

Stigma concerning mental illness manifests in certain ideas and thinking about the subject. Often times, these ideas arise due to misinformation and judgment. Stigma can manifest in a variety of ways, whether it is through social rejection, stigmatizing language, or inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in the media. Some examples of stigmatizing language include:

“You’re overreacting, it’s not that big of a deal.”
“That's crazy, your thinking is just irrational.”
“Other people have it much worse - suck it up.”

Stigma can also manifest through judgment and rejection. For example, some people who suffer from mental illness are rejected by their peers, treated as though they belong in an asylum, are the victims of gas lighting, and face bullying. 

When a person who is suffering from a mental illness faces stigma, it can severely reduce his or her willingness to seek professional help. After all, stigma can make a person feel shameful, judged, and fearful. 

If we feel physically ill, we go to the doctor. If we break a bone, we don’t hesitate to visit the emergency room. However, NAMI reports that the average delay between the onset of mental health symptoms and an actual diagnosis is 11 years. That is 11 years that a person suffers from something they cannot control, 11 years that a person has to feel as though something is inherently wrong with them, and 11years that someone’s quality of life is immensely diminished due to inadequate mental health care or a reluctance to seek help. Mental health should be treated just as physical health should be. There should be no shame in going to speak with a counselor when a person simply does not feel okay. 

What you can do to Fight the Stigma

People who suffer in silence carry a heavy burden. However, the more the world fights back against stigma, the lighter this burden can become. Here are 7 steps you can take to help fight the stigma of mental illness. 

1. Educate yourself. The first step is always education. There is endless information on the internet and in the library about mental illness. Find out how mental illness affects the community, the nation, and the world. Learn about what organizations near you are doing to fight the stigma.
2. Change your thinking. After you become educated, you can change the way you think about mental health. Start thinking of it in the same way as you think of physical health - with a sense of proactivity and urgency. You can also become mindful of the language you use to make sure it doesn’t contribute to stigma.
3. Challenge the myths. Have your self evaluated! Go talk to a counselor and see what it is really like to be the patient. Start taking steps to take care of your own mental health - then, share about it.
4. Educate others. Speak openly with others about what you have learned and what you have experienced. Make an effort to normalize the conversations around mental illness. Encourage others to show compassion towards people who are suffering. 
5. Get involved. Reach out to local organizations that support mental illness. See how you can help in your community.
6. Become an advocate. Encourage your friends and family to get involved, take care of their mental health, and help you fight the stigma. Find out if there are any programs or legislation you can advocate for that will support better access to mental health care.
7. Keep going. Stigma isn’t going away overnight. It is an ongoing process that will take time, effort, and patience. So, don’t stop! Keep going.

The more effort that is placed in fighting the stigma, the less powerful stigma will become. By sharing your story and being your own advocate, you can be the example that others need to see. You never know who you may affect, and you never know whose life you might change.

Kate is a passionate writer from Memphis, TN. She is in recovery from alcoholism, a mental health advocate, and a dog enthusiast.

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