Tune into any conversation about mental illness and addiction, and it won’t be very long until you hear the term “stigma.” Stigma has various definitions, but they all refer to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior. In other words, any disrespectful, unfair or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave toward individuals experiencing a mental illness.
But it doesn’t take much effort to reduce stigma in your own backyard. In fact, the rules of the road are quite simple. Here are five simple steps you can follow to become a stigma fighter:
1) Don’t label people who have a mental illness.
Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “She’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say, “He has bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” All of this is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.
2) Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.
Sure, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t necessarily more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes, such as the deranged killer or the weird coworker depicted in the movies.
3) Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.
In a research study, when British 14-year-olds were asked to come up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, the majority were negative. These terms, like “psycho” and “crazy,” are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about using “diagnostic” terms to describe behavior, like “that’s my OCD” or “she’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, it’s likely you may be offending someone and not be aware of it.
4) Don’t blame people with mental illness for their mental illnesses.
It would be silly to tell someone just to “buckle down” and “get over” cancer, and the same applies to mental illness. Don’t assume that someone is OK just because they look or act OK or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.
5) Be a role model.
Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, coworkers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said it nicely: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.
A version of this post originally appeared on David Susman’s site.
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