I was recently asked the excellent question: what can I do to help you feel less stigma? I replied with the first thing that came to mind, but the question stayed with me. It deserved more than an off-the-cuff answer. It deserved reflection. After my standard thoughtfulness, this is what I came up with.
First, let’s understand stigma. Stigma is the disapproval of an individual or group based on particular characteristics that distinguish them from mainstream society. In terms of mental illness, stigma is caused by lack of knowledge, media coverage (mentally ill people are portrayed as incompetent, dangerous, or violent), and low social contact (because people with mental illness feel shame and hide their invisible illnesses). Stigma prevents mentally ill people from sharing, which perpetuates the lack of awareness cycle.
Second, these are the things I personally believe help reduce stigma for those of us with mental illness:*
- Paying attention to language. It is astonishing how often people use the word crazy/insane in everyday conversation. It’s often used to describe something extraordinary (“That goal was insane!”), as an insult (“That guy is crazy!”), or as a joke (“You’re driving me crazy.”). This is an affront to me personally, and to many others I know with mental illness. It either downplays our experience and trauma as something trivial, or lumps us into the violent/incompetent category. I remember learning that the word ‘retarded’ was offensive back in the 80’s, and it has practically disappeared since then. I would love to see something similar happen with crazy/insane.**
- Listen and ask questions. A lot of the time we just want validation, because feeling alone and unsupported is a big part of feeling stigmatized. This is where having an open forum for conversation helps. Don’t judge, minimize, dismiss, disrespect, criticize, downplay, spew clichés, or tell us how to solve our problems. Be nice. Be thoughtful. Be kind. Offer suggestions (if we are receptive), comfort (a hug, tea, favourite foods, music, or your company), and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
- Learn about mental illness and share anything interesting with us. We might not react well because we are likely shocked that you are making the effort (and perhaps in denial about our condition or a fact you are presenting) but we appreciate your support and thoughtfulness even if we don’t admit it.
- Recognize that society’s portrayals of mental illness add to the stigma and can be upsetting. Be sensitive to the fact that even a trailer for something like Ratched or Shutter Island might trigger us, and Halloween costumes with straitjackets could cause a panic attack. Less extreme examples are more prevalent than you realize. New movies like The Guilty perpetuate the violent characterization while feigning sensitivity. I once turned off a Jim Gaffigan special because of his jokes about someone being mentally ill.
Stigma aside, you can’t solve any problems for someone with mental illness, they are responsible for their own treatment and recovery. But your support helps. In many cases it can make all the difference.
*I am only an expert of my own mental illness. Others may not agree with what I think is beneficial.
**Those who are familiar with my work might wonder why I named my memoir Crazy. It’s a way of reclaiming the word, to reduce the hold it had over me when I was first diagnosed bipolar 1.