We live in a world where most people do not understand mental illness. And when people don’t understand something, the people who are affected by that thing are left feeling dismissed, frustrated and stigmatized.
There are things we may do in our everyday lives that contribute to this effect and it is our job to be aware of these behaviors and make attempts to do better. Here are some of the things we (or the people around us) do regularly that is a part of the problem:
1. Dismissing bad behavior as a mental health issue.
If someone behaves in a way that is outside the bounds of societal norms, they are often branded as “mentally ill.” This happens so often that mental illness and deviance have been linked together, when—most of the time—they have nothing to do with each other.
The next time someone ends up on the news for committing violence against another person and the first knee-jerk response you have (or hear) is “they must be mentally ill”… ask yourself if you would have the same reaction for someone who was having an affair behind their spouse’s back. Someone who cheated on their taxes. Someone who stole a car. Each of those acts goes against the grain of societal norms, but we often attribute their motivations to personality characteristics, environmental factors, economic stressors, etc. Why not allow mental illness the same nuance?
2. Not adjusting everyday language (“crazy,” “bipolar,” etc).
The language we use every day has more of an impact than we realize. And it’s so ingrained that it can be hard to change—but not impossible. In fact, being self-aware of the things we say around other people is a good thing! It shows growth, openness and empathy.
Some words to avoid in your everyday vernacular are “crazy” (try “outrageous” or “wild” instead), “bipolar” in reference to anything other than the illness (if you call the weather “bipolar,” you really don’t understand what the word means) and “psycho.”
3. Seeing mental health as a “taboo” topic.
Someone who develops arthritis certainly doesn’t face the same reaction from the public as someone who develops auditory hallucinations or a severely depressed mood. So much of our society tells us that we just shouldn’t talk about those things. Keep it on the hush-hush. Nobody wants to hear about it.
However, when we are silent about everyday experiences that happen to everyday people, we are sending the message that both the experiences and the people are worth less time, energy and understanding than others. Instead, break out of the mold and have conversations about mental health. Support others who share what they’re going through. Encourage people to see mental health for what it is: one facet of the wide topic of human “health.”
4. Being critical of people who attend counseling or see a psychiatrist.
This just needs to stop. No one gives their friend any crap for getting a cast on their leg when they break it. No one mocks someone with Type I diabetes who will have to take insulin for the rest of their life. Why do we give people who go to counseling to make improvements in their lives a hard time?
Seeking treatment when something needs to be treated is the wise thing to do—let’s start talking about these services in ways that reflect how helpful they are to people who need them.
5. Assuming symptoms are easy to “get over.”
Let’s go back to the broken leg analogy. Your friend breaks their leg, follows doctor’s orders to get a cast, eventually has the cast removed and follows advice on gently easing back into activity. Anyone who would tell that friend to immediately jump back into high-intensity marathon training after getting their cast removed would be met with confusion and a swift “That’s a terrible idea!” comment.
Mental health works in similar ways. Treatment takes time, dedication and—most importantly, perhaps—support along the way. Someone doesn’t find balance with a mood disorder overnight. Both physical and mental health deserve time and patience when it comes to recovery.
6. Not being open to learning more about mental health.
No one enjoys being told they know little about a certain subject, but it’s true for all of us! There are several things about our world (and beyond) upon which each of us just don’t have a good grasp. Recognize that within yourself and commit to learning more.
When it comes to mental illness, take a look at websites like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for resources. Read articles written by people who experience mental illness symptoms for their perspective. Commit to understanding.
7. Being silent when others are stigmatizing mental illness.
Whether you have a mental illness yourself, you know someone who does or neither of those things (however, chances are you do know someone—you just might not realize it), it is essential to stand-up to the system that stigmatizes people. If a friend makes a comment that further puts people with MI down, say “Hey, that’s not cool to say.”
Take a moment to educate someone. Redirect behavior that has been previously unchecked. Yes, rocking the boat can be uncomfortable at times—but it’s the only way to make progress.