1 in 5 Canadians will cope with a mental illness in their lifetime. It’s NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) #MentalIllnessAwareness week. While as a society we’ve made leaps and bounds of progress in understanding mental health and making caring for it accepted and encouraged, we’ve still got a long way to go. The stigma surrounding mental health (especially mental illnesses) directly prevents those who need help from getting it by cultivating an environment of shame and inaccessibility. This week, we wanted to take some extra time to remind ourselves how we can fight mental illness stigma and make everyone around us (including ourselves) feel more safe to show up as they are.
Talk openly about your own struggles (when you feel safe to do so)
Mental illnesses are common enough that they will affect every single one of us in our lifetime in some way (whether that’s by knowing someone dealing with one or by coping with it ourselves). Knowing when you feel safe to share can be one of the most powerful ways to directly help others around you. Not everyone who looks okay is okay - and in fact we become very good throughout our lives at putting on a “brave” face and getting through the day when we’re not actually okay. You never know who is struggling just by looking at them from the outside - and if sharing your story helps even just one person - that’s a huge accomplishment and service to our community (sometimes even the smallest bit of support can make the biggest difference in someone’s life). As a bonus, sometimes sharing your story can be cathartic and therapeutic in itself as well as deepen the authenticity and intimacy of your relationships.
Resist the urge to isolate and get treatment yourself as needed
When we don’t feel okay in our own bodies and minds, we are tempted to hide away from the world, our responsibilities, and our loved ones. We do this for a multitude of reasons - some of which might be that we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, we don’t want to behave in a way we regret later, we simply don’t have the energy, or we don’t want others to worry about us or be a burden. The problem is that we are, in fact, human; and being human means that we’re designed to feel the full spectrum of emotion. We are not designed to be fully functioning all the time - how else would we appreciate the good times when they happen?
Our society has incorrectly instilled this idea in us that we need to hide from others when we’re struggling. Not only does living a lie in the moment not feel good, it prolongs the stigma surrounding mental health struggles. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it prevents us from getting the help we need. Treatment is essential in many cases and we shouldn’t feel shame seeking it. Change starts from within - and if we want our global community to get the help they need, we need to start with ourselves.
Use anti-stigmatic, people-first language (and politely correct others when needed)
Mental illnesses are not our entire identity. We are so much more than that. We are parents, siblings, professionals, care workers, friends, artists, and community leaders. We are kind, helpful, intelligent, and talented. We do not want to be defined by a mental ailment we deal with - it is part of us but not all of us. To combat the idea of putting ourselves in little boxes defined by our mental illnesses, we want to use language that reminds us that we are ourselves first and deal with a mental illness second. For example, rather than saying “that schizophrenic person,” you want to say “this person who deals with schizophrenia,” or “my friend has depression” rather than “my depressed friend.” These are subtle but important differences that remind us we are not defined by our struggles.
Equate physical and mental health
This means saying, “I have a therapy appointment” in the same way you’d excuse yourself for a dentist appointment. Your brain is part of your physical body and thus a huge part of your overall health. There is no more validity in going to the doctor with a sprained ankle than there is in seeking psychological assistance when your brain doesn’t seem to be functioning quite the way you’d like. The more we openly speak out about our mental health ailments and ways we address them, the more our society will start to understand and accept that mental health is health. Mental health is part of the human condition just as our bodies are.
This might be the most important one of all. When someone wants to share their experience, listen. The single best way to educate ourselves about mental illnesses is to encourage those who cope with them to take part. These primary sources are an authentic way to understand that everyone’s experience with mental illness is different - and one isn’t more valid than another. When someone decides to confide in you, believe them. Believe their story and their experience. It is not our place to judge, only to listen and continue expanding our mental schemas (our brain’s way of quickly organizing information) about our understanding of mental illness.
When this week is over, continue to take these ideas into your daily life. The more we create an environment of psychological and emotional safety, the happier and healthier our world will be (and the world can be a scary place sometimes; we all deserve to show up as our most capable selves).