Stamping out the Stigma
“Why are you so sad and mopey all the time? Don’t you know how good you have it?”
“Why does your husband always order you and the children around? He’s always jumpy and irritable! You need to tell him to get his act together!”
“We are all under a lot of stress right now, you just have to find a way to get out of your funk and make yourself happy.”
“Why is that man pacing and talking to himself? Is he crazy or something? I need to make sure to stay away from him as I walk out.”
“Mam, could you please ask your child to stop shouting? She’s causing a scene, and we may have to ask you to leave if she continues.”
Judgment. Quick and invalid assumptions. Shifting eyes. Heads shaking. Snickering. Blatant stares. Pointing.
Some of us hear and experience hurtful comments like these on a weekly (or daily) basis. You would think it gets easier each time, but every incident is capable of leaving the same prickly sting, and we feel the knife burying itself a little deeper.
According to Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, “Stigma is the most damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness. It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear, and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination.”
Did you know that 1 in every 5 people suffers from mental illness? That makes 57.7 million Americans every year. Globally, 3 of the 6 leading disabilities are due to mental illness (depression, schizophrenia,, and bipolar disorder). With those startling statistics at hand, you would think our society would have become more sensitive and educated towards those who suffer from mental illness and towards those who have loved ones with mental illness. Sadly, the large majority of our general public is still quite misinformed on the various types of mental illnesses, and the ever present fear of the unknown is still casting a harmful and unnecessary image on mental illness.
That having been said, how do we as families and friends battle and cope with this stigma? How can we better inform those around us and help redirect the current mindset?
Remember the days when the big “C”…Cancer…was almost taboo? We avoided talking about it with someone who was struggling, because it was uncomfortable and scary. After years of research and public education, almost the entire nation is now helping to raise awareness and educate others on cancer in some way, shape, or form. Why not mental illness? What steps can we take to start educating those with whom we interact every day?
Family and Friends
Family and friends must learn how to set aside their confusion, sadness, and anger about what is happening in order to get on with what needs to be done. Families also must become toughminded, informed researchers and advocates for their loved one. Below are a few tips on what your family can do as a TEAM to help battle stigma and support your loved one.
· Accept your feelings
o Know that your fears and worries are normal. Be proactive and learn as much as you can about the illness. Don’t hide behind the stigma…confront it head on by educating others as well.
· Learn how to handle unusual behavior
o Be mindful as a family on what “triggers” your loved one’s behavior at home and in public. Plan ahead of time and be prepared to offer several calming options to your loved one.
· Establish a support network
o Reach out to support groups that may be in your area, look into online forums and blogs that may offer advice and comfort from experienced individuals. Organize a team of “assistants” that can take turns traveling with you and your loved one.
· Encourage counseling/professional help for both the individual AND the family
o A mental health professional can suggest ways to cope and handle your loved one’s mental illness. Therapy can be highly beneficial for both the family and the loved one.
· Take time out for yourself and as a family
o Although it is quite natural for the loved one with the illness to become the overall focus, remember that you and your family, as caregivers, need time for yourselves. In order to be the best caregiver as possible, your mental, physical and emotional health needs to be reenergized and nurtured. You may want to have a family member or friend take your loved one out on a trip or simply sit with them at home while you take that much needed break, even it if is just a 45 minute nap.
“What we can understand, we can empathize with, and when we empathize, we tend not to stigmatize”, says Joseph S. Munson, Vice President of Residential Services at Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, Inc.
Stigma delays people from getting the help they need and perpetuates the belief that treatment is scary and shameful, and generates discrimination for those who see it. As a team, your family and friends can prevent this from happening to your loved one by organizing low key events to better inform your community on the dangers of stigma and bullying. Here are a few ideas for starters:
1. Encourage your church, your children’s school or your workplace to receive training on Mental Health First Aid. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare offers plenty of information on the various types of mental illnesses and how to receive training.
2. Invite your child’s classmates to a fun gathering in which they can watch a child-appropriate video on tolerance and differences. Organize fun activities in which they can learn more about each other’s differences and what makes them unique. Inform the children and their parents on how to properly respond to someone with a mental illness.
3. Set up an informational booth at a local health fair. Make it fun and educational by giving away prizes to those who can answer the most questions on mental illness correctly. Create inexpensive bookmarks or magnets that remind people of how stigma hurts, and how to be more aware of the signs of mental illness.
4. Offer to give a presentation to an influential community organization or club. You may be able to find an organization that is looking for a new project to support. Some organizations also enjoy sponsoring fundraisers for a particular cause or charity.
5. Create a blog or website that focuses on your loved one’s particular illness. Tell your story! Invite others to share their personal experiences and wisdom. Start your own support/advocacy group in your community. More than likely, someone else out there has been waiting for the same opportunity. They share your struggle.
You have the power to make great things happen in the world of mental illness! For more resources, you can go to www.TheNationalCouncil.org. You can also go to http://www.rosalynncarter.org/ for more information on caregiver support and research.
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