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The Fight to Eliminate Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Stigma and Discrimination   

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis, and the way we talk about it may be hurting more than helping.

Most articles, scholarly works, and books about mental health reference the ever-present stigma around discussing or seeking mental health or substance use disorder care, while in the past, stigma and shame have discouraged people from getting help. 

We have long believed that speaking out against the stigma will help encourage healing conversations and more widespread acceptance. Studies have shown this to be true. The last two decades have seen significant improvements in how the public perceives mental health.

However, while these are positive steps, they may not be enough in an increasingly bleak mental health landscape. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 5 Americans will experience mental health challenges in any year, and 50% of adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives.

"Now is the time to create a unified voice to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and shame. Now is the time for us to work together with other individuals and groups to create a unified and consistent message that disorders of the brain are not a weakness or flaw but instead are legitimate and treatable disorders of the body, no different than heart disease or cancer."
Mark H. Rapaport, MD, CEO, Huntsman Mental Health Institute

Tackling the Harmful Effects of Stigma Head-on

One of the challenges in overcoming mental health stigma is understanding where and when it happens. Mental health experts generally group stigma into three distinct types, which include: 

  • Public stigma involves incorrect and widely held beliefs that many people generally hold. 
  • Self-stigma is when a person internalizes negativity and feels shame about their condition. 
  • Institutional stigma happens when opportunities are limited for people with mental illnesses, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Stigma manifests in different ways—it may start as someone expressing a common belief that a person with a mental illness is unstable or violent. The comment then causes individuals to believe it about themselves because of their medical condition. When those assumptions about mental health are widespread enough, they become encoded into laws and common practices. 

Together, these types of stigma perpetuate a vicious cycle that, for years, has continually prevented people from finding help when they need it. And while outdated beliefs are beginning to shift, every time others discriminate or health insurance does not adequately cover treatments, a person feels reluctant to seek help and stigma lives on. 

How to Address Mental Health Stigma

There are many ways to address mental health stigma and overcome its impacts:

1. Embrace the Change in Yourself

The first place to combat stigma and prejudice is within ourselves. Educating ourselves about mental illnesses, reaching out to local resources, and sharing our challenges with others are great places to start. 

Many people fall into the traps of believing their conditions are the result of personal weakness or they need to be tougher to make their problems go away. Although we may be reluctant to seek professional help, overcoming stigma will help us learn to better manage mental health challenges that may be impacting our lives. 

2. Change the Conversation about Mental Health

Individuals must address stigma when they encounter it. Speaking up when others express stigma-laden opinions or sharing medically informed views in public spaces will help others feel empowered to address stigma and discrimination. 

Ensuring people can talk about their challenges will continue shifting the conversation to building foundations of mental health. Approach conversations the same way you would talk about physical health—without judgment and driven by concern. 

3. Reach Out to Others

After more than two years of social distancing, it's clear that interpersonal connections are critical for our mental well-being. As we begin to emerge from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, our focus should be on strengthening the relationships that sustain us. Sharing important resources about building mental wellness will help open the door to meaningful conversations. 

Other ways to keep up with your mental well-being could include checking in on friends and family, helping neighbors, or joining a support group with chapters around the country, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Strategies—including mindfulness, improving sleep, eating well-balanced meals, and reducing stress—with friends, family, and coworkers can help people think in terms of strength rather than illness. There are times to focus on urgent medical needs, but normalizing conversations about mental wellness will help people forget about any stigma.

We can and must change the conversation around mental health, especially as stigma and discrimination continue to keep people from addressing their psychological needs. Starting the conversation is the first step, and normalizing the conversations is what will lead the millions who struggle with mental illness every day to a healthier life.