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Weakness. It's a word that is often associated with mental health issues.
And it's at the core of mental health stigma.
That person is just faking it.
Oh, she's just not trying hard enough.
He's being too soft.
This is stigma, plain and simple.
But why does this happen? Why do decent people have indecent thoughts and feeling about those who are struggling with their mental health?
And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Let's break it down--and then figure out a way forward.
When Behaviors are Symptoms - Mental Health Stigma
People don't know what they don't know. Well-meaning people can turn into trolls when there is a knowledge gap.
What I mean is that mental health issues are not like other health issues. Because behaviors are symptoms.
Lack of action from one person is interpreted as "not trying hard enough" by another. Aggressive, illogical behavior is interpreted as "crazy."
All of this isn't helpful. But it actually makes sense.
Imagine going through 25+ years of your life and never learning about something. And then imagine being confronted with something you've never seen before. This is how most societies still deal with mental health. How can we expect attitudes to change if we don't teach each other about mental health and mental illness? How can can we change hearts and minds if we don't even fully understand the mind-body connection in the first place?
Schools are just starting to catch on, but it's not enough. For crying out loud, psychiatrists are just starting to be taught about trauma in their medical training. Trauma has a tremendous impact on mental health. It's often the root of some of the most difficult mental health issues. But from my conversations with medical professionals, it hasn't yet received the attention it deserves in the classroom setting.
What can we do when it seems like the world just doesn't care to learn about mental health?
With Mental Health Stigma, We Start Wherever We Can
We start at square one. Even if we already want to be at the finish line.
We need to start wherever the starting point actually is. We can't hope our way into a new future. We need action--a real, concerted effort to make changes. And that means telling stories and sharing struggles. It means finding hope in remarkable comebacks, in spreading great tales of survival with those who need to hear it.
Because mental illness is a disease like any other. If someone beats cancer, we admire their strength. If someone fights back against OCD or bipolar disorder, we view them as suspicious and keep an eye out for a recurrence of the behaviors that scare us.
Because they do scare us.
When behaviors are symptoms, it's all too easy to internalize what's going on. Deep down, we know that those are behaviors we could one day exhibit. The same goes for cancer. We know that the tragic event of a cancer diagnosis could befall us, but we hold onto hope that there are strategies and medical responses we can use to push the danger back.
With mental health issues, it's not so simple. There's still so much we don't know. But we can't focus on that. We have to start at the only place we can start. It's true for everything, but behaviors scare us, so we respond with fear to something that we should meet with compassion.
So my message to you today is this: Don't let fear drive you away from yourself or the ones who need your love and support.
Mental health stigma is real, but it's not permanent.
People aren't weak. They're hurting.
When we transform our fear into something greater and transcendent, we transform our world into a place that is more accepting of all people.