May is Mental Health Awareness Month – an important time when the broader world focuses on the crisis we face. And it is a crisis.
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goes so far as to say:
“Our country is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. The crisis isn’t just affecting adults, [it is] devastating young people, and people from every background are impacted.”
And mental illness is international, with millions of individuals from all nationalities and all continents affected. This is not an issue that any one country faces alone.
The term mental health is an umbrella term – it contains both awareness of mental illness and general care of one’s mental health. While both are important, The Layered Onion’s focus lies on the first.
Mental illness has been stigmatized, something previous generations pretended did not exist or never happened.
Now, it is so important to focus on mental illness support as part of Mental Health Awareness Month – mental illness support and the healing power of art.
Around the world, those with mental health challenges face and are affected by stigma. 1 in 5 Americans is negatively impacted by stigma in their lifetime (NAMI) but –
The stigma of mental illness is universal, notes the American Psychiatric Association. A 2016 study on stigma concluded “there is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness.”
Mental illness is present in all cultures, though global data is hard to come by. IHME’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) remains one of the only sources producing estimates at the global level. All said, the data is still only as good as what is reported and it can be hard to get data. As of 2017, about 10.7% of the global population, or 792 million people, encountered a mental health challenge. The language we use to speak about mental health challenges is important.
The way we talk about and view mental illness is not innocuous. Take film for example. The APA describes it well in the following example:
‘Media representations of people with mental illness can influence perceptions and stigma, and they have often been negative, inaccurate or violent representations. A study published in April 2020 looked at a recent example, the popular film Joker (2019), which portrays the lead character as a person with mental illness who becomes extremely violent. The study found that viewing the film “was associated with higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness.” Additionally, the authors suggest, “Joker may exacerbate self-stigma for those with a mental illness, leading to delays in help seeking.”’
That was a popular film. Did reading this encourage you to reflect on your own impressions of the movie (if you saw it)? What thoughts are you having? An internal and external dialogue is often a very valuable thing.
It’s okay to recognize that you’ve been looking at from a perspective that might not be totally correct and want to alter your views.
“The Only Constant in Life Is Change.”Heraclitus
There is great strength in admitting and learning from those with lived experience and organizations that specialize in the area.
- Talk openly about mental health, such as sharing on social media.
- Educate yourself and others – respond to misperceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
- Be conscious of language – remind people that words matter.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness – draw comparisons to how they would treat someone with cancer or diabetes.
- Show compassion for those with mental illness.
- Be honest about treatment – normalize mental health treatment, just like other health care treatment.
- Let the media know when they are using stigmatizing language presenting stories of mental illness in a stigmatizing way.
- Choose empowerment over shame
- “I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. to me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.” – Val Fletcher, responding on Facebook to the question, How do you fight stigma?
- Don’t Harbor Self-Stigma
- This is what our collective voice sounds like. It sounds like bravery, strength and persistence—the qualities we need to face mental illness and to fight stigma. No matter how you contribute to the mental health movement, you can make a difference simply by knowing that mental illness is not anyone’s fault, no matter what societal stigma says.
You, too, can break the stigma. Support those with mental and emotional health challenges.
You will be glad you did.
Data for this page came from the below sources if not listed above.
American Psychiatric Association. Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness. APA blog, Aug. 2020.
Fact Sheet: Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 HHS Press Release
Facts about Suicide. CDC
Greenstein, L. 9 Ways To Fight Mental Health Stigma. NAMI blog, Oct. 11, 2017.
National Institute of Mental Health Mental Illness
Rossler, W. The stigma of mental disorders: A millennia-long history of social exclusion and prejudices. EMBO Reports, 2016. 17(9); 1250-1253.
Saloni Dattani, Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2021) – “Mental Health”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health‘.
Scarf, D., et al. Association of Viewing the Films Joker or Terminator: Dark Fate With Prejudice Toward Individuals With Mental Illness. JAMA Network Open. April 24, 2020.
The Lancet Editorial. The health crisis of mental health stigma. The Lancet, 2016, 387:1027.