Erasing the Stigma of Mental Health Conditions

by Michelle R. Nickens

The Ad Council launched a public service announcement in 2015, that showed a crowd of people gathered around a huge X-ray screen displaying skeletons dancing, kissing and hugging. When the individuals came from behind the screen to reveal their differences, the crowd’s reaction ranged from shock to tears. There were many combinations of people from all ages, races and genders. The message—love has no labels.

But whether intentional or not, labels are often placed on people based on our differences, even though it is our differences that makes each of us special. Have you ever been to the mall or a restaurant and watched people? Each body that passes and every face that you look into are unique. Our hands hold one-of-a-kind fingerprints. Underneath it all are bones and flesh, but each of us is a one-of-a-kind creation. Celebrating ourselves instead of forming negative stereotypes helps strengthen families and communities, builds relationships and trust, improves confidence and wellness, enhances overall health and improves all of our lives.

In the area of mental health, stigma continues to be a challenge. Just like our heart, lungs and digestive systems—all our bodily functions—mental health is equally important. Yet often when we learn that we, a loved one or a friend is suffering from a mental health condition, we shy away or become fearful. We may make assumptions or deny a problem exists. Perhaps we feel inadequate or to blame.

According to the Mayo Clinic, stigma toward mental illness can lead to a reluctance to seek treatment, fewer opportunities, bullying or harassment and the belief that you’ll never be able to succeed or improve a situation. Dr. Wendy Somerset has a part-time private practice in Tallahassee. She says, “Education and empathy are key. Stigma leads to a damaging cycle. Each human being is unique. A mental illness diagnosis is just one part of a person; it doesn’t define them.”

Mental health conditions may not be as far removed from our lives as you may think. Dr. Somerset explained that 1 in 5 adults has a mental health condition and approximately 1 in 25 has a condition that causes serious functional impairment. If you consider the number of individuals in your family and in your circle of friends and coworkers, it is likely that you have come in contact with an individual suffering with a mental health condition.

There are many different conditions. These are a few examples. Mood disorders can include major depression, dysthymia and bipolar disorder. They affect 9 to 10 percent of adults and often are accompanied by substance abuse and/or anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and various phobias. PTSD, GAD and panic disorder are twice as common in women.

Eating disorders are more common in women and can include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect about 4 percent of adults. More severe conditions, such as schizophrenia, affect about 1 percent of the adult population.

Karli O’Neal, LCSW, explained that we all carry different levels of depression or anxiety. Everyone has different coping mechanisms and abilities to handle stress. However, “if someone is generally happy-go-lucky but stops sleeping well, has unexplained stomach aches, suffers from headaches and doesn’t want to socialize and these changes begin to hinder the person’s ability to live or go to school and the behavior goes on for weeks—anxiety may have manifested and will require treatment.”

Studies show that talking with a therapist can significantly improve the ability to manage disorders and increase wellness.

“In postpartum, for example, mothers can have horrible thoughts, but their brain is not processing information in the same way,” Ms. O’Neal explained. “We need to file everything correctly. Something gets filed incorrectly and results in anxiety. A therapist can help you rewrite, but not change, your files.”

As a parent, family member or friend, it is often hard to know whether someone is suffering or how to handle the situation. Dr. Summer Brooke Gomez, a local licensed psychotherapist, says, “Compassion is paramount to families looking to manage complex scenarios. If a loved one’s emotional or behavioral health may require intervention, put compassion first. Keep a high level of respect for personal autonomy and bring a collaborative spirit to intervention. Ask yourself how you would want the situation to be handled if you were the person of concern and respond accordingly.”

Dr. Somerset said, “We can teach our children to integrate mental wellness into everyday living. We can improve our mental health by taking medication, psychotherapy, practicing yoga or meditation, exercising or playing music.” Dr. Somerset also stressed the power of listening.

Ms. O’Neal said, “Let them know they are loved. Reach out and talk to them. Distractions are good. Set small goals. If they can’t get out of bed, suggest sitting out in the sunshine for 20 minutes. Accomplishing this will make them feel better. Exercise can be the best medicine.”

Dr. Gomez stressed that if you are seeking professional help, you should “ask for referrals from people you trust. Research the providers training and credentials. Interview a couple of people and find someone with whom your loved one can achieve a meaningful connection.”

May is Mental Health Month—a perfect time to start changing how the world sees mental health. Perhaps someday, children and adults will discuss the importance of mental health as early and as easily as we discuss dental health. We can all do our part in erasing the stigma by being aware, integrating a sensitive and collaborative approach, listening and letting everyone be themselves, differences and all.

The National Alliance on Mental Health has a stigma-free pledge to help erase the stigma of mental health conditions—to see the person, not the illness. Visit online at nami.org for more information.