Mental health is not a new issue, but is only recently being recognized, and proactively destigmatized. Mental health disorders now affect 1 in 4 people in the world at some point in their lives. Think of that… a quarter of the world’s population has battled, or is currently battling, mental ailments. But the thought that's even scarier is how many are actually reaching out for help? How many actually feel safe enough to reach out when they know they need help?
How can we help to destigmatize mental health so people do not feel ashamed of what they are feeling? I believe that one of the first steps to helping others, and yourself, who are experiencing mental conditions such as anxiety and depression, is to simply talk about it. Speaking out loud about mental illness takes away the power, so we can begin to own our stories, and our feelings to live a more heart centered and compassionate life. Let’s talk about what we can do to help take the shame out of mental health.
Let’s start by talking about what stigma is. Stigma is viewing someone else, or maybe even yourself in a negative way because you deal with a mental health condition. Stigma feels like judgement. Stigma feels like shame. Stigma feels like guilt, and blame. Stigma says, “You are bad, there is something wrong with you?” Stigma does not feel good, and it isn’t like we aren’t already experiencing the sadness of depression, or the worry of anxiety, or the fear with Post Traumatic Stress. Darkness only has power in the shadows, so what we bring to light (talk about openly) cannot keep us down.
Now, let’s explore 3 ways to help destigmatize mental illness.
Some studies link depression with cognitive decline. This makes it even more important to seek help if you are dealing with depression, anxiety, and stress. When we talk about our experience with mental health, whether it is with a trusted friend, or therapist, or maybe we share an honest post about what we are going through on social media, we have taken the first step to stop the stigma. It might seem small to us, but the ripple effect it can have is profound. In 2015 I shared on facebook that I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I do remember it being scary at first to be that vulnerable, but because I shared my experience, it encouraged others to reach out to me, and to reach out to professionals to get the treatment they needed, but were afraid to ask for. It might seem like a small thing to do to speak out about mental health, but you never know who’s life you can help change forever because you spoke up. Not to mention, you are breaking the stigma each time you speak out about it.
As if the stigma around mental health wasn’t enough in the first place, now there has to be a stigma about treatment, too? I started in therapy in 2014, and I remember a family member would only refer to it as my doctor’s appointment. They didn’t want to admit that I was seeing a therapist because I needed help with my mental health. When you have the flu, there is no one there to shame you for going to see your primary care doctor, so when you are dealing with depression why is there shame about seeking help? We are losing lives because these stigmas exist. So, be honest about your treatment and what has helped you find some peace and relief. It could be a visit to therapy once a week, or a meditation class, a yoga practice, getting involved in a support group… Whatever it may be, share it with others, and be proud that you are owning your story and getting the help that you need to live a more fulfilling and enjoyable life.
I have seen the word compassion surfacing many places, and I must say, it does feel good to see, but how many of us actually practice compassion towards ourselves? I’d like to think that people are good at being compassionate for others who are hurting and struggling. It’s important to show people with mental illness compassion. They are fighting a battle so deep and wide, some days it can be hard to even do the basics of self care like shower, brush your teeth, feed yourself. If we can show them love, compassion, and that we care, that can go a longer way than you could imagine. When it comes to ourselves, however, we have a much more difficult time showing ourselves compassion. We are very quick to judge, shame, and condemn ourselves, instead of loving ourselves, and giving ourselves a break. Something that can help to kickstart your self compassion practice is putting everything to speak and think to yourself through the filter of “Would I say this to the person I care about most who could be going through the same thing?” In my case, about 99% of the time, there is NO WAY I would say the things to my dearest friends and family, that I say to myself - especially if they are going through a rough time with their mental health. It only causes harm, and for some reason, we have become comfortable with beating ourselves up when we are already down. Next time you are overwhelmed and in the throes of depression, hold your heart, close your eyes, and say, “I have compassion toward myself for all of the ways that this is hard.” Just say that out loud, and let your body and nervous system feel what that feels like, instead of something negative, unkind, or judgemental. It is so important to learn how to be there for ourselves, and extend kindness and compassion to ourselves for all of the ways this is difficult.
You are not alone in your battle against mental illness. There is much work to do to become stigma free, but it is my hope and my wish that in my lifetime, I will see a world where mental health is radically destigmatized. A world where people are able to speak about it, get the help they need in whatever capacity they need to heal, and to live enjoyable and fulfilling lives despite the struggles they may be facing.