1) Don’t label people who have a mental illness.
Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “she’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” All of this is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.
2) Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.
Sure, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes, such as the deranged killer or the weird co-worker depicted in the movies.
3) Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.
In a research study with British 14-year-olds, the teens came up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, and the majority were negative. These terms are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about using “diagnostic” terms to describe behavior, like “that’s my OCD” or “she’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, you quite likely may be offending someone and not be aware of it.
4) Don’t be insensitive or blame people with mental illness.
It would be silly to tell someone to just “buckle down” and “get over” cancer, and the same applies to mental illness. Also, don’t assume that someone is okay just because they look or act okay or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.
5) Be a role model.
Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.
Former US President Bill Clinton said it very nicely: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.
Here’s a question: What can you do to help reduce stigma about mental illness? Please leave a comment. Also, please consider subscribing to my blog and please feel free to follow me on Twitter. Thanks!
David Susman is a licensed clinical psychologist. He grew up in Tazewell, a small town in the beautiful Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Virginia and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Marshall University. He received a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Kentucky. His graduate psychology training included work in psychiatric hospitals, mental health centers, a Federal prison, and a VA (veterans) hospital. Along with his work teams, he has been fortunate to help provide care to over 50,000 people with mental illness and addiction over the last three decades.