Stigma Won’t Go Away On Its Own: 5 Ways to Speak Out Against Stigma

By Laura Greenstein | Nov. 20, 2015

Stigma is a burden that lingers and permeates our society. The misconceptions perpetuated by stigma act as a barrier for people who live with mental health conditions to feel open about their struggles and experiences.

Being open and teaching people about these kinds of struggles is something that is necessary in order to remove the misconceptions about mental health.

It can be incredibly challenging and intimidating to share your experiences, but once you start the conversation, is a great way to stand up to stigma.

I reached out to NAMI’s Facebook community and asked people to share a time in their life when they stood up to stigma. Here are some of the responses that we received:

  1. Be Open about Your Experiences

“I wanted to write about my experience and show people that they don't have to go through it alone, but I was scared for a long time of admitting to my mental illness. Coming out as bisexual was easier for me than coming out as bipolar.” –Terryn Rutford

You shouldn’t have to stay ‘in the closet” about your mental health. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S.—60 million Americans—also struggle with their mental health every year, so chances are that if you open up, you’ll find someone to connect with. And if that person doesn’t accept you? There are many others out there who will.

Being open about your mental health is a reminder to yourself and to others that living with a mental health condition isn’t your fault. If you aren’t sure how to talk to others about your mental health condition, here is some information on disclosing to others.

  1. Don’t Let Stigma Slide

“Several months ago, when I went for a routine teeth cleaning, the dental assistant told me that I “didn't look depressed.” After that conversation, I chose to visit another clinic. Her comment was unacceptable, inconsiderate and unsympathetic.” – Dawn Olsen

You don’t have to tolerate prejudice or mistreatment of any kind. Sometimes you can look at someone and see that they are struggling, but you can’t always tell just by looking at someone. Mental health doesn’t look the same and assuming someone is fine because of how they look isn’t fair either. Let them know that mental illness is the same as physical illness, and should be treated with the same amount of care and encouragement.

  1. Reach Out to Others

“I believe in recovery for everyone and ran a crisis center that believed in hope and empowerment. We welcomed those in crisis like they were guests in our home.” – Patricia Tolmie Friend

By helping others who live with mental health conditions, you are showing the world that the mental health community is caring and encouraging and should be treated with respect.

  1. Pay Attention to How You Say Things

“I advised that language matters and if you as students have learned nothing else in speech class, take that one lesson with you because when you speak on topics that carry a lot of stigma especially, the words you use matter.” – Paulissa Edana Kipp

“Our son was newly discharged from a hospital with a diagnosis of Bipolar. The Special Ed Coordinator asked (when I asked for special services) did I really want my child "labeled" with Emotionally Disturbed. I said, "our child has a diagnosis and I want the services that can best meet his needs. A diagnosis is not a label.” – Jackie Dickey

People often use offensive language around mental health, sometimes without even realizing it. Encouraging them to use non-stigmatizing language is one of the easiest ways to stand up to stigma. For example, using person first language such as, a person living with bipolar disorder instead of a bipolar person. Also, not using mental health conditions as adjectives, such as “the weather is being so bipolar.”

  1. Teach Others about Mental Health

“I stand up to remove stigma every day as I live with an SMI diagnosis. I work as a counselor with the SMI population and with families and the community promoting education and awareness.” – Rasheedah Shaheed

Stigma is rooted in a lack of knowledge. Promoting education and awareness is a critical aspect of eliminating stigma. Direct people towards credible resources, such as NAMI.org or NIMH.gov, so that they can learn more about mental health.

Comments
Carlene Byron
I'm not sure we can battle "stigma" when we face real discrimination. I've renewed my driver's license in 2 states in the last year (because I moved after the initial renewal). Both states included inquiries about whether I had a mental illness as part of the license renewal process. I've applied for a job with a company that held federal contracts. The OMB form about disability, which is supposed to be used post-employment, was part of the pre-hire application packet. More than a quarter of the listed "disabilities" were simply mental health diagnoses. It is very intimidating for someone who has had a career (and a diagnosis) for more than 30 years to face these kinds of questions when applying for a job or driver's license. And this is new. So I would say discrimination is on the rise. Which makes "speaking out" riskier than ever.
12/2/2015 12:42:37 PM

Mat
This is really excellent. I would suggest, though:

6. Safety first. Being an advocate, an ally and a defender is empowering and good for both you and your society, but if you ever feel it isn't safe, or might negatively affect your health, it's okay to put points 1-5 on hold for a while. You don't have to be a hero all the time.
11/29/2015 6:37:44 PM

Cyndi
Thank you. It has been difficult to not beat myself up because of limitations this illness brings.
11/28/2015 2:02:23 PM

Kristen
I honestly thought stigma-free was for the birds when this first came out. A pipe dream. A sick joke. But I became somewhat ill this semester and had to tell students why I was sick. I was so nervous I thought I wouldn't be able to do it. But I told them I was bipolar, what that experience was like for me, and how hard I'd fought to live. TWO of my undergrads separately wrote that I was the bravest person they knew for coming out and for living my life. Another admitted he was autistic, and many wrote in support. It was an amazingly validating experience, to be accepted and cared for in these circumstances. Colleagues are much less accepting -- bad-spirited gossip and discrimination still reign with some of them. But gossip loses a lot of its sting when I'm out, and they are the exception rather than the rule. Maybe there's something to the stigma-free after all ...
11/27/2015 7:37:49 AM

Catherine Schaff
I attended a NAMI support meeting with my sister to help her and show support for her with her son who has recently been diagnosed with a mental illness. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of mentioning to those gathered there for the meeting that I have a bipolar II diagnosis. After I did so, not once, not twice, but at least three times different members asked me if I wanted to attend the meeting with the other people there who had diagnoses. I had to explain myself several times that "no", I was at the meeting to help support my sister in her issues with her son who is my godchild. Even in a NAMI meeting, we can be stigmatized, labeled, categorized, and stereotyped. I really should not have had to tell them more than once that I was there in support of my sister. Automatically they decided to label me with their judgements instead of treating me with respect. My godchild is doing much better. He is in treatement and living again with his mom. Never again will I go to such a meeting. I do not even have a serious case of BP. I live a very normal, active, life, and have been episode free for years. It really would be beneficial to people if NAMI support groups of lay people would take some type of sensitivity training. At least your run of the mill people you meet day to day have ignorance as an excuse. I really expected a more intelligent response from lay people at a NAMI support group that meets regularly. This group meets in Louisiana.
11/26/2015 10:57:05 PM

Riah
I have been going through serious Stigma/Biast treatment for 5+years. My reactions to it have not always been with "tact" or "grace" and made me very angry and upset as am being "ganged up on" and "bullied" by many people. I have a few people that I trust and enjoy my company as I do theirs!!
11/26/2015 9:07:38 AM

Anta Samsara
For years we've been fighting stigma in Indonesia. There are a lot of positive progress but we realize that still many jobs to do about it. Your organization (NAMI) is very helpful as a role model of ours, although there are few barriers that make us impossible to make ours as "alliance of mental health." But happily, the awareness is increasing. Thanks for delivering the informations to my email along these times.
11/25/2015 8:48:57 PM

Joseph Weiss
I've done all that I could but people still shun me including my own family. Holidays are particularly painful for me.
11/25/2015 6:49:34 PM

Rebecca Pace
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago, but live a full, vibrant life. I'm even looking at re-entry into the Air Force as a psychiatrist. I think that the public still views mental illness as being from the Middle Ages when people were done after suspicion of being heretics or witches!
11/25/2015 6:39:13 PM

Ke'Ke
I’ve been able to teach them what bipolar disorder is and change their misconceptions about it,” Noone said. “…They also taught me the lesson that I’m just a normal guy, and I can still fit in with everyone else. We all have something wrong with us; no one’s DNA is perfect.”

Since then, Noone has purposefully gone against the “keep quiet” mentality, making the choice to step up and speak out about his experience with mental illness. Having
11/25/2015 6:34:56 PM