Stigma-Free Mental Health: It’s OK if you aren’t OK

By Coral Nafziger

Several years ago, I had myself committed to a psychiatric hospital because I was scared by how frequently I thought about killing myself.
That was one of the bravest things I had ever done, but it is not something I can brag about. In fact, I often feel compelled to hide it.
What I did was brave, but I sometimes feel embarrassed of it. That’s worth looking into.

Stigmas

For those of us paying attention, there is a lot of talk right now about the stigmas, or prejudicial notions, about mental illness in our culture. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a list of several common myths about people with mental illness. Included on that list are that they are weak, unpredictable, violent and untreatable.

These stigmas strike home for me. I am afraid that telling people about my history of depression and hospitalization will make them think less of me. I fear they will think I’m crazy and shouldn’t be trusted with responsibility. It scares me that I could be passed over for a job because I’m seen as a nut case.

I also fear being considered weak. I want people to understand that I went through a rough period in my life because I was sick, not because I was lazy or morally lacking. Along with the stigmatization of mental illnesses comes a tendency to treat them as personal failings in a way that physical health illnesses are not.

According to Dr. Gwyn Hoffman-Robinson, a licensed psychologist in SCC’s counseling department, the idea that mental illness and physical illness should be treated the same way has only recently started to gain traction in our culture and become part of our insurance policies.


Barriers to Help

Shoreline’s Mental Health Awareness Society, which is advised by Hoffman-Robinson, is working toward decreasing stigmas associated with mental illness. According to Hoffman-Robinson, stigmas act as a barrier to resources, which is “problematic because people don’t get the help they need.”

Hoffman-Robinson noted that stigmatization can lead a person with mental illness to feel ashamed or like they can’t talk about their problems. These feelings can lead to isolation, and according to Hoffman-Robinson, “With mental illness … problems increase with isolation.”

StigmaFree

Right now, many people are speaking out about mental illness stigmas in hope that the more people who say something, the easier it will be for the message to be heard. Among those speaking out are celebrities and world leaders, including President Obama.

He said, “If you break your leg, you’re going to go to a doctor to get that leg healed. If … something inside you feels like it’s wounded, it’s just like a physical injury. You’ve got to go get help. And there’s nothing weak about that. That’s strong.”

Hearing him say that helps allay my fears of being seen as weak. This is a powerful voice saying that I am strong, and asking for others to recognize that as well.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness — also known as NAMI — has started a StigmaFree campaign. It even has its own hashtag. Much of the campaign focuses on people opening up and honestly sharing their experiences with mental illness, dispelling myths and fighting isolation.

Several years ago, I had myself committed to a psychiatric hospital because I was scared by how frequently I thought about killing myself. Several years ago I spent some time in a hospital because I had an illness that could have become fatal. Those sentences mean the same thing and in a StigmaFree world, they are treated with the same amount of respect.

What you can do – recommendations from NAMI members on destigmatizing mental illness

1. Speak openly about your experiences with mental illness
2. Become informed and inform others
3. Use thoughtful, kind, appropriate language to describe mental health concerns
4. Treat mental illness and physical illness with the same amount of respect and dignity
5. Be compassionate towards people living with mental illness
6. Don’t define a person based on their illness — it is only one aspect of them

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