The stigma is there; let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room!
Research suggests that most people hold negative stereotypes toward people with mental illness. While society is moving toward acceptance and better understanding of mental illnesses, the assumption that mentally ill individuals are dangerous, violent or unstable is still there. These stereotypes are not only wrong, but they continue to isolate those who are battling with mental illness and prevents them from speaking about it and finding support and professional help.
In my private practice, I’ve heard many comments that demonstrate the existence of such stigma. The comments that I hear most often are:
- “This must be the craziest thing you’ve ever heard.” Or “Am I the craziest client you’ve ever had?”
- “I’ve never shared this with anyone, I’m afraid of what you’ll think of me if I tell you.”
- “My husband doesn’t know that I’m in therapy, he doesn’t believe in it and thinks we can handle it on our own.”
When I hear statements like statement “A,” I assure the client that I do not view them this way. Despite the safe space of the therapeutic setting, the client is usually either surprised or shows disbelief. It is reasonable to assume that this is because they’ve received and internalized the message from others that they’re “crazy,” or the use of the word “crazy” has been an acceptable form of speech since childhood, when kids call one another “crazy” or “insane.” Being perceived as “not normal” has direct negative consequences in our society and thereby fuels protective behaviors: I don’t want to be viewed as outside the norm; therefore, I’ll do everything in my power to keep that hidden from others. This belief leaves the individual to deal with his/her psychological challenges alone, while feeling ashamed, hopeless, and vulnerable.
Statement B also shows the negative consequence of the stigma for the client who becomes pre-occupied wondering what others will think of them once they find out the part that they’ve been working so hard to hide all this time. They worry that they will no longer be a good candidate for a job, or that they won’t get married. They worry that their friends will no longer respect them. The psychological energy that is used up in this manner leaves less energy for managing other aspects of their lives.
Lastly, statement C represents the large portion of the population that believes that seeking help is a weakness, or that therapy is for the extreme cases only.
How do we contribute to the stigma in our day to day lives?
We make assumptions about things that we don’t know a lot about. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with a friend or a family member when they disclosed something about a mental or emotional struggle? Perhaps you handled it with support and compassion, or maybe it made you feel uncomfortable. When a friend or loved one opens these topics in conversation, many people find that they don’t know what to say, or they change the subject, or worse – they say something unhelpful.
Make de-stigmatizing mental illness a personal mission. Whether you know it or not, someone close to you is struggling with a mild or major mental health issue. Someone you know likely is struggling with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, an addiction, or may have a personality disorder. Once we recognize how close to home these battles are going on, it will become easier to start changing our attitudes.
What can I do to make a difference?
LANGUAGE: Change the language that you use:
- Say unique instead of different when speaking about a person.
- Avoid using words like crazy, psycho, or insane, and teach your children to do the same.
OPEN UP MENTAL HEALTH AS A TOPIC OF DISCUSSION:
- Discuss with your family what acceptance and support of others looks like. For example, if your child’s classmate has behavioral issues, instead of calling her a “trouble maker” teach your child that this girl might have difficulty controlling herself and hopefully she’ll learn the skills to be able to do so. Ask your children what it feels like when they feel a bit anxious, or sad, and how difficult it must be when a person experiences those emotions more intensely and on an ongoing basis.
- Bring in speakers for your synagogue, school, office, or community to discuss vital topics in mental health. For example, when a convicted pedophile moved into our neighborhood, we invited a speaker to come and inform parents of how to talk to their children, and what signs to look out for. A seminary that noticed a prevalent problem of eating disorders in their students, contacted me at Get Help Israel to request a speaker who would lead workshops for students on body image and self-esteem. If you need help finding the right specialist to speak, please contact Get Help Israel at email@example.com and we will suggest qualified therapists in your area who can either be accessed for individual therapy or who are ready to come and talk to a larger group and share their wealth of knowledge.
SHARE MENTAL HEALTH INFORMATION that you come across, whether it’s something you read online, on social media, or a book; you never know who’s suffering silently and would appreciate this information without having to ask.
SHOW COMPASSION NOT JUDGEMENT: When someone opens up about their struggles, avoid saying “you should be able to…” or “get over it already.” Those messages will only make them feel worse about not being able to do what others expect of them. You don’t always need to provide a solution, just validating and being supportive sends the message that you’re not judging them.
DON’T FAKE PERFECTION: We participate in the stigma by portraying the “perfect” self and hiding our own challenges. We see this a lot in parenting, in the workforce, and in academic achievement, among other examples. Internally, we might be experiencing anxiety, turmoil, or confusion, but externally, we work hard to show that everything is just great! What if we praised being real more than being perfect? Perhaps that big elephant will leave the room for good.
Tanya Prochko, MEd, MFT is the Founder and Executive Director of Get Help Israel (GHI) – The Association of English-Speaking Mental Health Professionals. She founded GHI with the purpose of providing English speakers with a trusted resource to easily access the help that they need. Tanya also has a private clinic in Jerusalem where she sees adults and couples using an integrative approach. To learn more about Get Help Israel, please visit www.gethelpisrael.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. Tanya Prochko can be reached at email@example.com.