Let’s talk about the stigma surrounding mental health. A stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Layer that over mental health, and specifically mental illness and now the definition reads “a mark of disgrace associated with mental illness.” Ouch. It breaks my heart that mental illness continues to carry a mark of disgrace with it, especially with the high prevalence in our communities.

Did you know that an estimated 1 in 5 adults struggle with a mental illness? When we include youth and children in this estimate, the percentage rises. With such significant numbers, the fact that mental health is still discussed minimally, if at all, is discouraging. We know that individuals with a mental health diagnosis are at a greater risk for social isolation, have greater difficulty developing fulfilling relationships, and that there is a correlation between untreated mental illness and suicide risk. Despite the known complications, as well as the known benefits of treatment, conversations about mental illness continue to happen below the threshold necessary to encourage change.

What if we talked about mental health as openly as physical health? Imagine what our communities would look like if individuals affected by a mental illness were able to gain support from their family and neighbors for their depression, the same as when they are post-op from a heart surgery. Consider what the recovery process for mental illness would look like if when someone disclosed their struggle and their journey to wellness they were accepted and encouraged! Do you think that kind of support would affect whether people with mental illnesses reach out for help? I think so, and I believe this kind of change is possible, with some shifts in how society thinks about mental health.

How do we begin to unravel the stigma? I believe the first step is to get educated! Almost without exception, when I have a judgment about a topic, it is due to a lack of information about that subject. Mental health is no different. In my opinion one issue that prevents people from being educated about mental health includes the lack of open discussions regarding the prevalence and impact of mental illness. Due in large part to stigma, many individuals who struggle with mental illness feel unable to talk as openly as someone who is battling cancer – and yet mental illness can be just as detrimental. When we hear personal testimonies about how mental illness affects people, we can connect our hearts with the importance of the cause. As I see it when we become educated, through real people accounts, our understanding and compassion provides the catalyst for reducing the stigma and normalizing mental health care.

To begin changing the conversations surrounding mental health I have unpacked some points I believe are important.

1. Understand mental illness is not a choice. Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, PTSD, Anorexia, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These diagnoses, like so many others, involve a reaction in the brain that the afflicted individual has difficulty controlling without outside assistance. The behaviors, thoughts, reactions, and effects are not something the person would choose for themselves. Unfortunately, because of a lack of information, society sometimes paints a picture that people who are mentally ill choose to live this way. The truth is that even if they felt comfortable doing so, many people do not know where to turn to for help, or even that something is “wrong”. Mental illness tells lies like “You are the only one that feels this way”, it is from this isolating place that the person struggling keeps their battles tucked away, lest they seem “crazy”.

2. Mental illness can be treated. The field of psychiatry and therapy has grown tremendously over the past few decades. What we now know about the brain allows clinicians and physicians more opportunities to assist individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses. Previously, a schizophrenia diagnosis would almost certainly mean hospitalization. Fortunately, the advances in medicine and psychiatry have allowed a more comprehensive approach, providing platforms for many individuals with schizophrenia to live full, independent lives. These advances have positively impacted the field of mental health in many ways. Understanding the possibility of treatment can encourage those struggling to get help, which means more people on the road to wellness.

3. People with mental illness are not their diagnosis. Mental illness does NOT define an individual. We do not say “That bi-polar woman”, but rather “the woman with bi-polar disorder”, because the diagnosis does not define the person. It is a struggle they are walking through, not a definition of their being. Can you imagine calling the mom battling breast cancer “the cancer lady”? Absolutely not, and yet society has normalized the labeling of people struggling with mental illness by their diagnosis. In my opinion, this reinforces the stigma, rather than creating space for safe, open conversation about the struggle. Realizing that mental illness is something that affects the individual, rather than who they are, is key in updating how we view mental illness.

4. People with mental health diagnoses are capable. Individuals with a mental health diagnosis are just as capable of living abundant lives, raising families, and working fulfilling jobs as people who do not struggle with mental illness. It is true that some diagnoses will require more intense, or even long-term care for symptom management, but this does not prohibit productivity or decrease the value of the individual. Some of the most resilient people I know have battled mental illness and come out with more grit, tenacity, and compassion for others than individuals who have never dealt with mental health issues.

So, what do we do with all of this? The reality is mental illness is not going away, a fact we cannot change. What we can change is the way we perceive mental health as well as the individuals who struggle with mental illness. We can set into motion a snowball effect of acceptance, and thus facilitate dialogue for healing. I believe when we do so the stigma decreases, and the topic of mental health care becomes a more normal conversation. People who are struggling feel more safe reaching out for help, and a shift begins. I am ready to be a part of the change, are you?