Reducing stigma and mental health challenges

Thank you for pausing to read this blog. As to paraphrase the announcements on airplanes, you have choices when it comes to reading material and I appreciate that you are reading what I have written.

Please do not be disappointed with any recommendations or solutions, as I can only share what has worked in my experience.

Like many individuals, I have felt the impact of stigma throughout my life and learned to cope and eventually stop focusing on what people thought about those characteristics that I could not change and concentrate on the aspects of me that I wanted to change.

For example, I wore glasses as a child when most of my friends did not.  I also liked to read books and liked science in a time when being “book smart” wasn’t a value shared by my peers.  The neighborhood was rough and being “street smart” was the safest way to survive the far west side of Chicago.  My parents were working class during a time when being “working class” came with a host of assumptions about your living conditions, political affiliations, dining habits and transportation choices.

These stigmas, e.g. assumptions with actions, served as shortcuts to a superficial understanding of the “other” and left little room for real understanding.  My family and I were often the “beneficiaries” of these superficial understandings.

As an aside, I am hopeful as the generations that have come after mine have different views of emotional and mental health and how it can be addressed. And it is evidenced by their use of social media to share their thoughts and perspectives.

Like every other social challenge that was tackled, there is no silver bullet or cure-all.  One can even conclude that deliberate efforts by many often do not have as much impact as a few famous individuals with access to several social media platforms.

At this moment in time, we are fortunate to have several world class athletes freely expressing the need to take care of their mental health and by doing so reducing its’ stigma.

This, combined with our individual efforts of sharing the personal benefits of taking care of our own mental health, goes a long way to normalizing what was seen as taboo in the not so distant past.

 The lesson I learned was those who are quick to judge and condemn aren’t looking to expand their knowledge base.  It takes a level of thoughtfulness and willingness to challenge one’s preconceived notions, to address any stigmas we have taking up space in our consciousness.

The Cambridge Dictionary says stigma is a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair:

Goffman identified three main types of stigma: (1) stigma associated with mental illness; (2) stigma associated with physical deformation; and (3) stigma attached to identification with a particular race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.

The stigma of mental health has a long history in this country and countries across the world, and a significant amount of dialogue came from the medical community searching for answers while not fully understanding the lasting impact of the words used hundreds of years ago that remain with us today.

For example, the word insane was first used in the late 1550s and crazy was first used in the 1610s. And both words had the meaning of “not being of sound mind.” 

We as professionals must continue the dialogue with our peers and the younger generation to make sure that we are sharing, discussing, and writing about the disease of mental health and what is necessary to treat it.  We can no longer be hesitant to talk about treatments and the harms to society when professionals, practitioners and patients DON’T talk about the impact of mental health programs. It will be our sharing of these experiences inside and outside of the world of mental health that will create new pathways for stigma elimination.

In terms of solutions at the systemic level, I applaud the Rosalynn Carter Center that shared this on their website, “As a part of an international effort to reduce stigma and discrimination, the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism provides stipends and training to journalist to support reporting on topics related to mental health and substance abuse issues.” Their mental health program works with leaders in the stigma-reduction field providing expertise.

A solution at the personal level is offered by the National Alliance on Mental Health’s website where individuals are encouraged to take a quiz and pledge to be stigma free.  NAMI offers three steps to being stigma free and I fully endorse, encourage and support their recommendations: (1) Educate yourself and others; (2) See the person, not the situation; (3) Take action.

I leave you with that challenge.  What are you willing to do to reduce stigma? 

About the Author

Dr. Warren Braden is a native of Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Braden is currently in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist-In Training in the State of Wisconsin. He is also an online instructor at the University of Phoenix and Concordia University-Wisconsin. Dr. Braden’s focus is on connecting health care providers to community-based health agencies with the goal of improving the overall health and wellness of the population, as well as, enhancing the training and skills of the health care, social work and public health practitioners in the field, through evidence-based practices.

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