Helping others overcome the stigma around mental health

When someone gets physically injured, it’s natural for them to ask for immediate help from the people around them because they’re in pain and they want to feel better. But when someone is suffering from internal pain, such as the loneliness that comes with depression or the fear that comes with anxiety, they’re less likely to ask for help like they would for a physical injury.

One of the main reasons people hesitate to ask for help and withdraw from others is that they’re worried about the stigma and discrimination they may face for their mental illness. Some people worry about what their peers will think of them, while others feel they may be judged because of their condition. 

Although it’s a complete fallacy, some people believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness and proves there’s something wrong with them. The messages projected by the media and society in general often support these harmful theories and prevent people with mental illness from getting the help they need and deserve.

Types of stigma

There are three main types of stigma surrounding all kinds of mental illness, from ADHD to PTSD. The form of discrimination usually originates from fear or a lack of understanding about the condition.

Various studies have revealed that although society may accept the medical nature of mental illness and the need for treatment, many people still have negative thoughts and opinions of people with mental illness.

  • Public stigma: discriminatory and negative attitudes that other people have about those with mental illness
  • Self-stigma: negative attitudes and internalized shame that people with mental illness have about themselves

Ways you can help

Your patients have already made a huge step in the right direction by coming to you for therapy. But even if they’ve never mentioned it before, it’s likely they experience discrimination in their daily lives because of their mental illness. Here are some ways you can support your patients and show you care about them.

Be thoughtful about the language you use

You can unknowingly contribute to mental health stigma through the words you use. For example, it’s best to substitute the phrase “You’re suffering from mental illness” with “You have a mental illness”. The first implies your patient is a victim, while the second gives them more control.

In a similar way, avoid calling patients by their illness. Instead of saying “You’re bipolar” say “You have bipolar disorder”. Labeling someone as in the first phrase could make them think that’s all there is to them as a person. But by putting the disorder in their possession, you’re empowering them to take control of it and get better.

Treat physical and mental illness equally

Some people think that people with anxiety need to toughen up and people with depression need to snap out of it. No one would tell someone with a broken leg to just get on with their lives without medical assistance. So why does society think it’s okay to tell people with mental illness to suck it up and deal with it on their own?

Let your patients understand that the problems they have are real and just as valid as any physical condition. Just because you can’t see someone’s inner turmoil on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Encourage empowerment over shame

Your patients have already shown great strength and courage by coming to you for therapy. Help them get back in control and take charge of their mental illness by empowering them. Tell them that no matter how bleak or hopeless they may feel right now, they’re stronger than they think and they can get through this.

Being discriminated against and feeling shame for something as common as mental illness can really make you feel isolated and like you’re never going to succeed. By showing your patients that you believe in them and they can get better, you help fight the incorrect stereotypes they may have to deal with outside your office.

Stop self-stigma before it takes over

Self-stigma can be a slippery slope. It’s bad enough that society has negative views of people with mental illness. But when you see your patients harbor those same views about themselves, it can be devastating.

If you notice verbal language, body language, or anything else that suggests your patient may be experiencing self-stigma, address it immediately. Encourage them to open up to you and explain how they feel and why they feel that way. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression can all become overpowering for someone experiencing self-stigma.

Discuss all the meaningful ways they can contribute to society and feel like part of the community. Everyone wants to belong and because of the stigma which surrounds mental illness, it can be difficult for many people to feel that they’re valued. Be supportive of your patient and help them find a way they can feel more connected to the world around them.

You can make a difference

You can help your patients improve their quality of life and understand that they’re not weak for reaching out by helping them overcome the stigma around mental health. You may not be able to change the opinions of the world. But you can make a real impact on your patients by reassuring them that they’re making the right move by seeking help.

Part 3 of 3

This is part three of a three-part series. Part one answers the question “Why is there a stigma around mental health?” and part two helps you gain a greater understanding of the impact of mental health stigma. 

About the author: Theresa Boswell

Theresa is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I relocated to California after a short period in Kansas in 2016.  Growing up in a large family has allowed her to develop unique experiences that she draws from to foster resilience and growth in her patients.

She has over 20 years of experience in counseling and in the field of social services.  She has recently been a leader with Federally Qualified Health Care (FQHC) systems leading change within Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) environments.  She received my education from the University of Wisconsin’s educational system, with obtaining her master’s in Social Work from UW-Madison and her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from UW-Milwaukee.

Read more about Theresa here >>

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741