May is Mental Health Awareness Month—time to focus on prioritizing mental health and acknowledging that it's "OK not to be OK." It is also time to stop the sigma and spread awareness about what we can do to end discrimination and recognize the impact it has on people living with mental illness.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), more than half of people with mental illness do not receive help for their condition. Often, people will delay treatment or avoid seeking treatment because they fear being treated differently by friends, family, co-workers, and society in general.

Unfortunately, negative beliefs and attitudes toward people living with mental illness or mental health conditions are far too common. Stigma against those with mental illness stems from a lack of understanding or fear. Misleading and inaccurate portrayals of individuals with mental illness in the media only worsen that stigma.

Stigma is powerful and dangerous and leads to discrimination. At some point in their lives, maybe people with mental illness have been blamed for their condition. Maybe they have been made fun of, or their symptoms were referred to as something they "should be able to control." Maybe they've been avoided because people assume they are unstable or dangerous. Discrimination may be obvious and direct or subtle and unintentional. Regardless of the magnitude, it leads to harm.

Individuals with mental illness may even judge themselves. Those living with mental illness may feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. They may see their condition as a weakness or something that should be controlled without help. Individuals may isolate themselves and be reluctant to share that they need help.

Most detrimental of all, stigma and discrimination cause people to not seek the help they may need. Dealing with stigma is an unacceptable addition to the pain that people with mental health issues may already feel. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) indicates that other harmful effects of stigma include:

  • Lack of understanding from family or friends
  • Fewer opportunities socially, at school, or work
  • Harassment, bullying, or violence
  • Lack of health care coverage for mental health or mental illness
  • Lack of hope or belief that a situation can improve
  • Increased psychiatric symptoms and reduced likelihood to seek or stay with treatment

The pace of progress to reduce stigma has not been quick enough. But there are ways we can all help to stop the stigma and fight discrimination against people with mental illness:

Seek help for yourself or loved ones.

If you break your arm, you get an X-ray. If you feel sick, you schedule an appointment with your doctor. But the fear of being labeled with a mental illness stops people from getting help. Treatment is essential to bring relief, reduce symptoms and lessen interference with your work and personal life. It is not always easy to ask for help, but it is worth speaking up for yourself or someone you love. Seeking counseling and education or finding support from others with mental illness can lead to positive self-esteem and better perspective, while acceptance and assistance helps overcome destructive self-judgment.

Be careful with your words.

Be thoughtful about your language; words can sting. Don't define people living with mental illness by their condition. It is important to separate the illness from the person. Never say, "My sister is bipolar"­—instead, "She has bipolar disorder." If diagnosed, it's one part of a person, and no one is defined by only one aspect of themselves. We often use descriptions of behavior that imply inaccurate misconceptions of mental illness: words like “crazy,” “deranged,” or “psycho.” These words are disrespectful and harmful, contributing to stigma and discrimination. Be mindful of the descriptive terms you chose.

Educate yourself and others.

The first step toward emotional well-being is to educate yourself. Seek out reputable sources about treatment options, symptoms, and mental health conditions. Also, inform others that mental illness is a physical disorder that can be treated just as you treat any other medical issue. Share your knowledge and factual information so that rumors or inaccuracies surrounding mental illness are dispelled. If people truly understand what mental illness is and the challenges people may face, we can move beyond negative perceptions.

Talk to teachers.

Discrimination against students because of a mental illness is illegal, and K-12 and college-level educators must provide accommodations to students. Find out what programs are available to best support learning for yourself or your child. Talk to professors, administrators, and teachers about the best approach and resources. If teachers do not know about a student's disability, it can lead to discrimination and learning loss.

Share your story.

If you are living with mental health issues, honor your story. Encourage those seeking help to tell their story—then, listen to their struggles and be encouraging. Sharing your mental health challenges can help you in your recovery, and it can offer support and encouragement to others with similar experiences. Sharing your story also helps promote understanding and empathy toward those with mental illness. It can also inspire individuals who are struggling silently to seek the help they need. When we know someone with a mental illness, it becomes more real, more relatable, and much less scary.

Speak up.

Express your opinions about mental illness assertively and confidently and educate others respectfully to help promote change. You would never make fun of a person who has cancer or heart disease. Making fun of someone with a mental illness promotes discrimination, spreads harm, and increases stigma. Speaking up will educate the public and help reduce stigma and discrimination, but it could also give others who face mental health challenges the courage to advocate for themselves and others.

This May, as we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, pledge to talk about mental health. Replace silence with questions and understanding. Speak up against stigma. Spread the word that mental illnesses can be treated and cared for like any other health condition. Choose to help stop the stigma.

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