As I tell people in my Mental Health First Aid workshops, I’m not the person you want to watch TV shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order with. I spend most of the time criticizing how mental illnesses are portrayed and critique the language used in each episode. How many times do we hear others make claims like, “he’s so bi-polar,” or “she’s such a drama queen”? How many times have you heard people referred to as “crazy,” “mental” or even “schizo”? One of the biggest battles those with mental illness face is the language people use. The stigma and use of mental health terms to put people down or joke around can lead those suffering from mental illness to feel isolated, reduce a person’s quality of life, delay access to treatment, hinder social interaction, diminish self-esteem and decrease employment opportunities. Many people say the stigma associated with mental illness is worse than the illness itself.
De-mystifying the Truth
Studies show that even with the amount of information regarding mental illness, myths still float around and could sound a little (or a lot) like this:
People with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous.
TRUTH: Individuals living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than inflict harm on others.
People don’t recover from mental illness.
TRUTH: People can and do recover from mental illnesses. Today, there are many different kinds of treatments, services and supports that can help. No one should expect to feel unwell forever. The fact is, people who experience mental illnesses lead productive, engaged lives. They work, volunteer, and contribute their unique abilities to their communities. Even when people experience mental illnesses that last for a long time, they can learn how to manage their symptoms so they can get back to their goals. If someone continues to experience many challenges, it may be a sign that different approaches or supports are needed.
People who experience mental illnesses can’t work.
TRUTH: Whether you realize it or not, workplaces are filled with people who have experienced mental illnesses. It doesn’t mean that someone is no longer capable of working. Some people benefit from changes at work to support their goals; however, many people work with little to no support from their employer. Most people who experience serious mental illnesses want to work but face systemic barriers to find and keep meaningful employment.
Mental illnesses are rare.
TRUTH: 1 in 25 people in Canada live with heart disease. 1 in 15 people live with type 2 diabetes. Unlike the more common chronic diseases, mental health problems and illnesses hit early in people’s lives. More than 70% first experience mental illness in childhood and 28% of people aged 20-29 experience a mental illness within a given year. By the time people reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 people in Canada will have had or have a mental illness. Mental health problems and illnesses account for approximately 30% of short- and long-term disability claims, and are rated one of the top three drivers of such claims by more than 80% of Canadian employers.
It can Happen to Anyone
In one year, 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness, so chances are you already know someone who is affected. It could be a co-worker, friend, child, spouse or family member. In a world where political correctness is confusing and the criteria for mental illness is always changing, it’s important to realize how our words and the labels we sometimes unsuspectingly give others can affect them.
Stand up for Others
So what can you do? Disable the label and STOP! Here is a simple acronym you can use to recognize attitudes and actions that support stigma. Ask yourself if what you hear, read or experience:
S - Stereotypes people with mental health conditions,
T - Trivializes or belittles people with mental health conditions and/or the condition itself,
O - Offends people with mental health conditions by insulting them,
P - Patronizes people with mental health conditions by treating them as if they are not as good as others.
Speak up and help others realize that their words and actions can affect people facing mental health challenges. May 2-8, 2016, marks Mental Health Week—a perfect time to encourage mentally healthy lifestyles and positive attitudes in your school or jurisdiction. Organize a group walk at lunch time, put up an idea board for employees to suggest ways to relax, brainstorm mental health supports your colleagues know about, or invite a guest speaker in to talk about their experiences. Let’s start having conversations about mental health and speak out together! Because no one should have to battle this alone.