A stigma is a lingering poor perception or attitude associated with a set of circumstances, characteristics or people – and despite progress in recent years, a stigma around mental illness persists.
The results of stigma around mental illness can be stubborn misperceptions or harmful stereotypes, the avoidance or isolation of people with mental illness, and the possibility that someone might not seek the care and support they need.
This feels big and heavy – and it is, but we can all make small shifts in our day-to-day lives that can go a long way toward reducing stigma and showing more sensitivity to people with mental illness.
Below, Dr. Alexander Tan, a CHOC pediatric neuropsychologist shares 5 actions you can take today to support people experiencing mental illness and help chip away at the stigma:
1) Adjust your thinking
Instead of wondering what’s wrong with a person, try reframing your thoughts to ask what happened to a person.
This shift considers how a person’s life experiences and circumstances, much of which may be outside their control, influences their health, behaviors and outlook. It also removes a value judgement about their possible diagnosis or the implication that they are to blame for their illness. Instead of devaluing someone’s suffering, be open to the idea that someone has experienced life differently than you.
It’s also important to ask what’s right with a person: This is a reminder that individuals are whole people made up of much more than their illness – physical or mental – and have many wonderful qualities, skills, roles and perspectives.
2) Choose words carefully
What we say and how we say it matters. Making small changes to how we talk – about mental illness and in general – can go a long way toward decreasing stigma.
For example, consider how often you hear “crazy” used in casual conversation about something strange or to add emphasis. Hearing this word used as a catchall description – and one with a negative connotation – might make someone experiencing mental illness feel embarrassed or reluctant to seek help.
So, instead of saying, “Work is crazy right now” or “Work is crazy busy right now,” phrase it differently: “Work is slammed right now” or “Work is very busy right now.”
Other words and phrases about mental illness sometimes creep into conversation and can be stigmatizing. Sometimes they may even be used as jokes. Here are some others to avoid: psycho, nuts, mental, loony, wacko, insane, split personality and deranged.
Related, try to avoid using mental illness diagnoses as casual descriptors because it stigmatizes actual mental illness. For example, instead of saying, “Kevin is so OCD about this project,” try “Kevin is focused on the project’s details,” or even better, “Kevin’s great attention to detail is so beneficial for this project.”
It’s also important to be mindful about how we talk about suicide, which is complex and often has many factors. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide,” say they “died by suicide.” The word “committed” implies a crime has occurred.
3) Remember that people are more than their diagnoses
Humans are complex and a person’s illness is just one small part of who they are. When it comes to mental health, we may use language that unintentionally defines someone’s identity by their diagnosis. Using “people-first language” recognizes that by avoiding describing someone as their diagnosis.
For example, instead of saying “Rosa is schizophrenic,” try “Rosa has schizophrenia.” Also, “Quan has bipolar disorder,” not “Quan is bipolar.” Instead of “Anorexics often have distorted body images,” say, “People with anorexia often have distorted body images.”
This small shift says a lot by acknowledging that Rosa and Quan may also be a friend, an athlete, a volunteer or many other roles beyond only someone with a mental health diagnosis.
4) Educate yourself and others about mental illness
Being informed can help with educating others and getting them the help they need. You don’t need to be an expert – after all, we are all continually learning. To learn more, check out CHOC’s mental health toolkit, which has a host of resources for children and teens, parents, healthcare providers, educators and more.
5) Show compassion and dignity
What people who are experiencing mental illness often need most is someone to listen with empathy and support without judgment, and they are unlikely to seek help if they think they may be stigmatized. Let them know you are an ally and available for support by offering compassion and dignity through your thoughts, words and actions.