How Stigma Stunts Mental Health Care

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental health condition. While half of all mental health conditions begin by the age of 14, the majority are undetected and untreated (World Health Organization). This equates to millions of Americans who face the reality of living with a mental illness each day. While conditions range from managing worries concerning everyday life to chronic conditions like severe depression; each impact how someone thinks, feels and behaves.

Each October a week is dedicated to increasing awareness and reducing stigma around mental illnesses. As advocates ban together to support the common goal of increasing awareness, we must individually reflect on our own role in the matter. While there are more resources available today than ever before, advocates are still confronted with stigma as the greatest barrier to reaching their intended audience. Regardless of the mental illness prevalence rate, stigma is still deeply intertwined with mental health.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines stigma as “a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people, or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of.” Individuals with mental health conditions are often treated differently, whether intentionally or not. When mannerisms noticeably shift while interacting with someone with a mental illness, we send a crippling message of inequality. Consequently, the fear of discrimination fuels stigma’s ongoing presence and influence on prevalence rates. The anticipation of enduring disparity alone can hinder struggling individuals from seeking timely intervention or care altogether. The longer someone waits to seek care, the longer their journey to recovery.

Our degree of knowledge, exposure and connection to our own mental health influences the spread of stigma. For some, their social upbringing may have a greater impact than they’re aware. As we mature, we note which topics are and aren’t openly discussed across different social settings. If discussions concerning mental health were rarely had, individuals can unconsciously label them as negative or “off-limits.” Additionally, in comparison to society’s comfort discussing physical health and how accessible resources are, it’s reasonable that some may view mental health as inferior to physical health. This goes to show that measures need to be taken to help reshape mindsets and increase our comfort level discussing mental health.

It can be difficult to discuss mental health. It’s personal, overwhelming and incredibly sensitive. However, to regain the power it holds, we must start talking about it. Compassion, empathy and understanding all stand up to stigma. As prevalence continues to rise, mental illnesses are just as common, if not more than physical illnesses. If we can learn to discuss the subject matter with the same ease we use when sharing details around a sport’s injury, catching the flu or dental work, imagine how many more individuals would seek care. As we work to erase stigma, it’s important to note that mental health conditions don’t discriminate. Regardless of your race, age or socioeconomic status, we’re all susceptible. Consider the type of landscape you’d prefer if your mental health were impaired.

An individual’s mental health has an enormous impact on their overall wellbeing. By understanding the mind-body connection, increasing the scope of awareness and challenging stigma, we can begin to make invaluable changes. While initiatives like Mental Illness Awareness Week are fantastic catalysts to ease individuals into discussing mental health, it’s crucial we continue the efforts year-round.

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