woman holding sign up to mirror

I normally post online about Muppets, coffee, musicals and cats, but something happened recently and I can’t stop thinking about it: the Kenneth Cole billboard that links mental illness and gun violence. A blog I posted on my Facebook critiquing it was mostly ignored (it got maybe 2 likes), while I got 318 likes on another post.

That one was about my hair.

So now, I’m on a tireless quest to help people understand why mental health stigma can be devastating. You might think this doesn’t apply to you, but even my super kind-hearted friends have said things to me about mental illness to “help” that felt more like a punch in the stomach. Even I need to work on the way I see myself and others with mental illness.

Here are 10 reasons why you (and I, and everyone else) need to stop stigmatizing people with mental illness:

1. It makes it harder to ask for help.

Those three words, “I need help,” floated behind the curtain of my mind for too long. They’d peek out — peek a little more — and then run back to hide again. I could feel the words trying to slide out of my mouth desperate to be heard, but shame would push them back again. When they finally escaped they wore a lot of costumes, hidden in “I thinks,” “Maybes” and “I’m not sure’s” to cover what I really needed to say.

When we make people feel like there’s something odd/shameful about having a mental health issue, we make it hard for them to admit they need help. Sometimes when they finally do, it’s only when they’ve become most desperate. What should have been a first step becomes a last resort.

2. It makes people feel like monsters.

Once, after telling a friend I took medication for depression, she had a dream I was chasing her with an ax. Because of what I said about depression! I was confused and so hurt. Me? The girl who took a cockroach out of her apartment to set it free? The girl who gave the building exterminator an orange freeze-pop and asked him to please not kill the mouse? It made me never want to tell anyone else ever again.

When the media shouts and obsesses over mental illness like it’s a fearful thing (“Did the mass killer have a mental illness?” “Monster shooter had depression!”) it misrepresents a whole group of people. They don’t often show people with mental illness who are doing phenomenal things in this world. Fear sells, but it also shames.

3. It can make you hurt people you care about, even if you don’t mean to.

Think of all the people you interact with and care about in your life. One out of four of them have a mental illness. You never know who’s listening and how your joking or comments affect them. Educate yourself about mental illness before you make hurtful jokes or get on your soapbox. All the cool kids are not stigmatizing anymore, so you don’t want to look like a goober.

4. It makes people feel alone.

When people don’t talk about mental illness (or whisper it like it’s dirty word) it makes people feel like it’s uncommon or something to be ashamed of. Stigma isolates, but community and connection can be an important part of healing. We need to know our people are out there. We need to know one day we will be welcomed with open arms.

5. It makes people feel guilty about taking medication. 

Because of some lame comments from people who I trusted (with no medical background) about medication, I’ve been off my medication about 10 times. I tried so many alternative therapies, but always ended up in the same position. Then when I went back on medication, I felt like a failure. It wasn’t until a brilliant, compassionate psychiatrist sat me down and said, “Stop it,” that I finally changed my attitude. She told me it wasn’t weak to take medication; it was strong. I wasn’t cheating life by taking it; I was cheating myself and everyone else by denying myself it.

Different methods work for different people, but never shame someone for taking medication for their mental illness. It can have devastating consequences.

6. It denies those with mental illness hope. 

I moved to New York City from a small town, and now I’m a graduate student at New York University. I have amazing friends and a supportive community. I volunteer and teach amazing kids. I’m happy. But there was a time I couldn’t imagine these things for myself. I didn’t have any role models who had a mental illness. I only knew the stigma.

When people with mental illness come of out the shadows, it shows others they can live successful, beautiful lives — with a mental illness.

7. It makes people feel weak.

When we shame people for asking for help, it makes them feel weak. The idea that anyone can just “get over” or “work though” a mental illness is outdated. On the contrary, it takes tremendous strength to ask for help and stay with treatment. It’s badass.

8. It doesn’t help people get the mental health care they deserve.

Care for people with mental illness should be top-notch (I mean, we’re talking about the brain here), but in my experience, it’s not. I’ve been treated like I’m a child. I’ve been on hold with insurance for 45 minutes only to be told there’s “nothing they can do.” I’ve noticed compassion is missing from our mental health system, and I think stigma is a big barrier as we work to improve our mental health system.

9. It causes lack of education about mental illness.

I remember when I started experiencing obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, I was so ashamed and didn’t understand what was going on. I thought I was just some kind of freak.

We need to educate kids, teens and adults about mental illness so when they’re experiencing the symptoms they’ll know what’s going on. When we are silent, they stay silent, sometimes delaying treatment long after symptoms occur.

10. It’s not compassionate.

We have to have compassion for people with mental illness. And those who have mental illness need to have compassion for themselves. Don’t believe the stigma, and get the help you deserve.

Follow this journey on We Have Apples

Related: Sh*t People Say to People With Mental Illness


While checking her email on the way to work one morning, Kate Kryder saw an image she says put a pit in her stomach. It was the “Dorothea Dix Psych Ward” Halloween costume, a controversial item being sold in two costumes stores in North Carolina. The blood-splattered hospital uniform was eventually removed from stores after an outcry from local advocates.

I had to do a double take, I couldn’t believe it,” she said in a blog post. “As my shock continued, I began to realize how intentional this company had to have been to research a local psychiatric hospital and then mass produce these costumes.”

Kryder is a board member of Chapel Hill’s National Alliance for Mental Illness chapter and the Co-Curricular Leadership Program Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For her the issue was both personal — she has general anxiety disorder and her partner has schizoaffective disorder — and professional. She’s passionate about normalizing mental illness for her students, considering 75 percent of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24.

So, she snapped portraits of volunteer students and staff at UNC Chapel Hill, holding up signs that explain why mental health is not a costume.

mental health advocate with text 'mental illness is not a costume' “I wanted to give voice to the people who remain silent in fear of losing their job, for the people who are afraid to tell their family, who are timid about seeing a therapist or psychiatrist and for the people who society has alienated with the stigma and discrimination of mental illness. These people are your educators, your baristas, your friends, your bus drivers and the person you least suspect,” she wrote.

The hashtag #notacostume is not Kryder’s creation, and typically has been used to call out cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes. But Kryder hopes this movement will become just as powerful in the mental health community.

“My partner has said, ‘Living with the stigma is sometimes harder than living with the illness.’ That’s heartbreaking,” she told The Mighty.

mental health advocate holding a sign that says 'my partner is NOT your costume'

She hopes to take more pictures to show the vast number of people who are affected when those with mental illness are portrayed as violent.

“I hope that people will think twice before they put on a costume,” Kryder told The Mighty. “That’s someone’s brother. That’s someone’s partner. This is a personal issue to a lot of people. Even if you don’t think you know someone, you probably do.”

Here are more picture’s from Kryder’s #notacostume campaign:

mental health advocates hold sign saying 'our mental health is NOT a costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my friends are not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my parents' clients are not your costumes'

mental health advocates hold sign saying 'our mental health is not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'I'm not your costume, but I'm happy to help you think of a more appropriate and creative idea!'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my cousin is not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my little brother is not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my mental health is not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my mental health is not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'the people in my community are not your costume'

mental health advocate holds sign saying 'my loved ones are not your costume'

You can join the movement by using #notacostume, or tweet your picture to Kryder @gratefulyoga.

 Related: Why People Are Trying to Stop a Ghose Hunt in an Abondoned Insane Asylum

I consider suicide. I write that in the present tense because it’s the reality of my existence. I consider ending my own life. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but the frequency can be startling. Most of the time the moment is fleeting, like being in your late 30s and thinking about going to a rave. Or one more drink. Or Pop Rocks. Or canned beef stew for that matter. For the briefest of moments you entertain the concept, but quickly the absurdity pushes the thought from your mind. Once in a while the thought skitters across your consciousness like a stone skipped across a lake, only to sink quickly out of sight.

I was out trimming vines from the trees out behind my house today. I enjoy manual labor as it allows my mind to wander, flitting from one thing to another. Today was no different. My mind danced and whirled, changing direction like a hummingbird in flight. Until I started fixating on the vines I was ripping from the trees, and my blissful wanderings came to a abrupt end.

Depression and bipolar disorder are like those vines. They start out small and fragile, creeping onward, barely noticeable. Before long they’ve grown stronger. Tiny fingers grow inward like roots, slowly tightening their grip. Eventually those roots help the vine become an insidious presence that slowly strangles the tree, constricting it. Eventually the tree either dies or breaks free of its infernal bindings.

Depression has essentially been my vine. I don’t yet know if I’ll be breaking free, but I think I might. There are tough days though. Days when the roots of suicidal thought find a small crevice and hold tightly to my thoughts. Those days are difficult in a way I cannot begin to explain. I want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t know what I want beyond a little silence in my mind. The voices and thoughts inside me aren’t me, but they are tricksy. On those days, the voices have me nearly convinced of their authenticity. I am them, they are me and we are one.

Except we aren’t one. We can’t be. We can’t live believing what the interlopers whisper. Every day our minds punish us with fear, isolation, desperation, imagined failures and inadequacies. Suicide isn’t some snap decision, the selfish act of an otherwise highly functioning individual. For others like me, we’ve considered it a thousand times and battled on.

Because unlike majestic oaks, we have power over our vines. We only need to reach out and ask for help. There’s no need to wait helplessly for a savior. No requirement that we sit quietly, waiting for a hapless homeowner to come with snips to save us from our slow demise. Waiting stoicly in the darkness for someone to clip away our vines leads us deeper into the darkness. We need to regain control of our destiny.

Yes, suicide is an option, but not the only one. We can ask for help. We can reach out in the darkness. We can overcome the affliction that grips our minds.

Yeah, I think about suicide. The voices demand it, but I recognize them for what they are. Squatters in my mind, occasionally appropriating more space but never gaining complete control. I haven’t figured out how to expel them completely, not yet. Eventually though, I will squeeze them out, tearing away at the vines that bind my mind. Then I will be free. Then I will have my chance to grow without the constriction of my mind.

I will not be beaten. I will not be overcome. I will ask for help when I need it. I will open up to friends and family. I will allow them to save me from myself. These are choices we can all make. It can be as simple as a deep breath or a phone call to a hotline. I have chosen to live, and I want the same for you.

This originally appeared on The Good Man Project

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Mental illness stigma manifests in many different ways for the 1 in 5 people who live with a mental health condition. Some keep what they’re going through to themselves while others struggle to convince others they need help. But how would your life change in a world free of mental health stigma? This is the question we asked our readers during Mental Illness Awareness Week in honor of this year’s theme: #IAmStigmaFree.

Here’s a glimpse into what a stigma-free world might look like for those who live with mental illness: 

1. “I would be able to ask for help more without feeling ashamed or like less of a person. Without fear of what people are really thinking about me. Without fear of people turning away.” — Mary Mahorney

2. “I wouldn’t have to choose between honesty and courtesy when people ask me how I’m feeling.” — Irina Greenman 

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3. “I could talk about my family members’ mental illness to my friends and colleagues without shame or judgment.” — Dawn M. Werlinger

4. “I wouldn’t have to be secretive about my therapy and psycholgist appointments or make up fake illnesses when I call in sick.” — Sara Cahill Camps

5. “It wouldn’t have taken over 10 years to be diagnosed with my physical illness. Almost every doctor dismissed my complaints as soon as they saw I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 with anxiety.” — Cynthia Rhodes Alberson

6. “I’d no longer be as scared to ask for help from those around me.” — Rochelle Ashcroft

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7. “I wouldn’t cringe every time someone claims to be ‘OCD’ about something.” — Hailey Remigio

8. “I’d be more open to discussing what it feels like to be in my brain instead of trying to keep it under control.” — Lauren Celeskey Bednarz 

9. “I wouldn’t have spent years in hiding.” — Ella Dick

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10. “I would be able to actually tell my professors and employers what’s wrong instead of lying every time.” — Calliope Krystal Pia Kilpeläinen

11. “I would be able to share my struggle with OCD and agoraphobia without being told I’m ‘crazy.’” — Erica Enos

12. “Mental health treatment might have equal insurance coverage.”  — Katie DeMore

13. “I would feel OK telling people why I was going to the counseling center at my college. I wouldn’t have to lie about the medicine I take. I wouldn’t feel like a fish out of water in my own skin every day.” — Kathleen McKenna Nelson

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14. “People could understand I’m not the worlds biggest flake. I’m just scared.” — Amanda Schulte

15. “Disclosure to employers would be easier. I wouldn’t be viewed as difficult or unreasonable with my accommodation requests.” — Barbara Audacity Johnson

16. “Simply put; I’d be free. Free from judgement. Free to open up without that uncomfortable silence hanging in the air. It would mean freedom to be me; the real me. — Geraldine Renton

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Want to live in a world without mental health stigma? Take the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s StigmaFree pledge.

*Some answers have been edited and shortened

Often in the aftermath of a mass shooting, like the tragedy at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College last Thursday, politicians and the media speculate why, sometimes focusing on the mental health of the shooter. Or, as John Oliver put it on Sunday night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “There’s nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health.”

Then in a 12-minute monologue (below), Oliver nails why discussing mental health issues after a mass shooting — and only after a mass shooting — is not only misleading but unproductuve, considering fewer than 5 percent of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental disorders.

“In real life, mental health can be somewhat of a touchy topic,” Oliver says. “We don’t like to talk about it much… and when we do, we don’t talk about it well.”

Instead of dwelling on the possible connection between mental health and shootings, Oliver broke down our “clusterf*ck” of a mental health system, proving the conversation about mental health shouldn’t start, or end, with shootings.

Watch the full video below:

A friend just told you his or her loved one attempted suicide. How does one react to this information?

First and foremore, be there.

Be there for the person who just told you this information, and be fully present with them. Because for every person who’s struggling with mental illness, there are loved ones who care for them. As a therapist who supports family members of those who have mental illness, I can tell you those loved ones need help, too.

Just as the person who has a mental illness struggles with guilt, shame and fear of being judged, so do the loved ones. They too may be fearful to speak openly. So if someone does open up to you about their loved ones’ mental illness, please know they value your support and friendship. They know you can’t fix everything by saying the right thing, but you can be there. Listen to them. Talk to them.

Here are some tips that can help you support your friend:

1. Ask questions.

If the person is comfortable, ask questions. Do so because you want to understand and provide empathy, not out of curiosity. This actually may be a nice change for the loved one. Because the topic of mental illness can make people feel uncomfortable, some might respond with silence, change the subject or offer a hurried statement. If you don’t understand something, ask. It’s better to fully understand than to make assumptions.

2. Don’t assume your friend can tell you what he or she needs.

Don’t assume your friend knows what they need. In times of stress, it’s common not to know. If they’re sharing with you, most likely they just need you to listen.

3. Offer practical help.

Offer/do practical things for your friend. Offer to babysit, bring groceries or bring dinner. Any of those things can be helpful. If someone is hospitalized, visiting hours are often in the evening, so things such as meals and childcare can be important.

4. Encourage self-care.

Remind your friend to engage in self-care. Offer to go to the movies, meet for coffee or go on a walk with them. Friends and family of those with mental illness need to manage their own stress as well.

5. Check in.

Check in with your friend periodically about their loved one. One reason that mental illness is so isolating is because people don’t talk about it. While it can be uncomfortable for both the person struggling and the family, it’s uncomfortable for them not to talk about it, too. They’ll appreciate knowing that you care enough to check in.

A version of this post originally appeared on the JLF Counseling Services blog. 

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


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