Reduce the Stigma
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
It’s an odd paradox that a society which now speaks openly about anything and everything that was once unspeakable remains largely and uncomfortably silent when it comes to mental illness. Seems like everything else is on the table. Stigma still exists despite advancement of treatment, knowledge about the brain, efforts of many organizations and individuals.
This paradox is not only odd, but also dangerous. Stigma can make people feel somehow less-than, damaged, or abnormal because of a diagnosis of mental illness often leading to negative consequences. People may avoid getting life-saving treatment, refrain from reaching out to offer support to others in similar situations, or remain silent instead of advocating for policy and structural changes that could benefit everyone.
It’s always been a driving force behind what I do to remove the stigma. I don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations, and I will continue to raise awareness through seminars and pooling resources together for our community. But it is most definitely an uphill battle. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Our mental health is directly related to our physical health. They are not interchangeable.
I recently became a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor through Peace of Mind , a composite training program on mental health crisis response that includes a clinically-based course (Mental Health First AidTM, owned by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing) which is augmented by a theologically-based presentation developed by the Assembly of Bishops. The changes are slowly happening.
"This composite program, designed by the Assembly's Task Force on Mental Health, will equip clergy and ministry leaders in Mental Health First Aid™ through the lens of Orthodox Christian pastoral care. By bringing together a research-based mental health crisis intervention course and a theologically grounded pastoral care presentation, Peace of Mind demonstrates how caring for those with mental health needs is an opportunity to be the Good Samaritan in the world."
But these programs need to be supported by you, the community. The Mental Health Professionals need to be supported by you. To remove the stigma, we must begin with ourselves. I am always astounded by how many people still feel so much shame and judgment and fear getting help because they simply don’t understand. When we are feeling physically ill, don’t we go to the doctor? It’s the same concept. H-E-A-L-T-H C-A-R-E providers include mental health providers.
There are many reasons why people develop mental illness. Some are genetic or biological. Some are a result of childhood trauma or overwhelming stress at school, work, or home. Some stem from environmental injustice or violence. Sometimes, we simply don't know. Regardless of the reasons, these are health problems just like cancer, arthritis, or diabetes. So why does society look at people with mental illness, including substance use disorders, differently? The answer is Stigma. The real question however, is how do we stop it?
The Effects of Stigma
Fear and misunderstanding often lead to prejudice against people with mental illness, even among service providers. It's one of the main reasons why many people don't consider it a real health issue. This prejudice and discrimination lead to feelings of hopelessness and shame in those struggling to cope with their situation, creating a serious barrier to diagnosis and treatment. Stigma seriously affects the well-being of those who experience it, those who are struggling with mental illness and their loved ones.
Stigma affects people while they are experiencing problems, while they are in treatment, while they are healing and even when their mental health problem is a distant memory.
Stigma profoundly changes how people feel about themselves and the way others see them.
Stigma leaves people at risk.
Things You Can Do to Reduce Stigma
Educate yourself about mental illness facts.
Be aware of your attitudes and behavior. Examine your own judgmental thinking, reinforced by upbringing and society.
Choose your words carefully. The way we speak can affect the attitudes of others.
Educate others, pass on the facts and positive attitudes; challenge myths and stereotypes.
Focus on the positive. Mental illness is only part of anyone's larger picture.
Support people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect; offer support and encouragement.
Get professional help.
Brave conversations need to happen — but we need to think bigger if we want to end stigma for good. More than half of Americans with a mental health condition remain untreated, impacted by a deep societal stigma that leaves us reluctant to reach out. The impact on those already struggling is undeniable.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), stigma results in reduced hope, lower self-esteem, increased symptoms, difficulties at work, and a lower likelihood of maintaining your treatment plan. So where does this stigma come from? Attitudes around mental illness are still reinforced in our culture and media. People with mental illnesses are still widely believed to be dangerous, untrustworthy, and incompetent, despite experience and evidence showing this is rarely the case.
How do we reduce stigma?
There’s a far-reaching assumption that simply talking about mental health is enough to reduce stigma.
To truly break down stigma, it must be addressed at multiple levels:
Systemic change. Discrimination is still an everyday reality for those with disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities. There’s a high correlation between stigma and structural inequality. To truly address stigma, the rights and dignity of people with disabilities must be meaningfully addressed in education, housing, the workplace, and healthcare, including increased access to treatment.
Research and funding. To better understand mental health and illness, more research is needed to increase our knowledge about these conditions and to improve the effectiveness of our interventions, as well as funding to make treatment more accessible.
Mental health literacy. Simply being “aware” of mental health isn’t enough to address stigma. People must be empowered to take command over their own mental health, like knowing where to access help and how to advocate.
Increased awareness. For many people, there’s still mystery about what mental healthcare really is or looks like. By becoming more active and visible in their communities, healthcare practitioners can reduce a possible fear of the unknown. For communities with a history of mistrust in the healthcare system, seeing a healthcare professional who looks like them and is from the same community can be beneficial.
While talking about mental health is a great starting place, more will be needed to truly better the lives of those with mental health conditions.
What we allow will continue, what continues will grow and what grows will take over.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.