“…People with a mental illness would rather tell their employers they have committed a petty crime and were in jail than admit to being in a psychiatric hospital.”
It should come as no surprise that people with mental health challenges don’t want to talk about them. In fact, they will do what they can to keep them a secret because of the fear, shame, and embarrassment associated with mental illness. In a study done by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, only 61% of Americans think it appropriate to tell family members of a mental health diagnosis, just 43% approve of telling friends, and 13% of telling co-workers.
Yet, more than 40 million adults experience mental illness in a given year and nearly 10 million adults live with a serious mental illness. Additionally, 50% of chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14. The fact is that people living with mental illness are part of our community. They are our friends, co-workers, neighbors and loved ones. Their challenges affect all of us, whether it is at work, at home, at places of worship or at school.
A couple of years ago, a school principal told me about an informational meeting they had for parents about alcohol and drugs – and they had a full house. But when the school followed up with a similar assembly about mental illness, hardly any parents showed up. How sad that parents stayed away when so many of our youth are facing these challenges.
Too often people are afraid to reach out for help because of the shame and stigma associated with mental illness or addictions. In multiple studies, a majority of adults believe that people are caring towards people with mental illness. Yet when you ask individuals with mental health issues, the percentage drops dramatically. Individuals with mental illness report experiencing stigma and discrimination on a regular basis.
People struggling with mental health need strong, supportive relationships and an understanding ear. Instead of focusing on how someone is different because of their diagnosis, think of how you can relate.
If you think of mental health as a spectrum where some people have more extreme experiences than others, it becomes okay to share how you also struggle with self-control, have scary thoughts, are bothered by irrational things, or sometimes can’t control your emotions – these ‘symptoms’ are normal for humans. And when sharing your experiences, also listen to how someone else may experience similar things differently.
The emotional and psychological aspects of mental health challenges make supportive friends and family even more important to a person’s recovery. So what can you do?
- Talk openly about mental health. Be brave and share your story.
- Educate yourself and others about mental health.
- Be conscious of your language. Don’t use words like crazy, psycho, lunatic, etc.
- Don’t presume or equate mental health issues as the cause for violent or criminal acts.
- Show empathy and compassion for those living with a mental health condition.
- Push back against the way people who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media.
- See the person, not the illness.
The fight against stigma must happen where we live and work. We need to commit to changing our own attitudes and confront the myths and fears around mental illness and addictions. It’s okay not to feel okay, so reach out to people in need, and if you are in need, reach out for help.