• Blog Post
  • Sara Holland

We Need to Break the Stigma of Mental Health Conditions

No question: To take better care of each other, we need to break the stigma of mental health conditions.

I just finished reading an article about Elyn Saks, J.D., Ph.D. It got me thinking, as I often do, about how crucial it is that we break the stigma of mental health conditions — especially when it comes to creating positive change in our hospital cultures

If you’re familiar with Elyn Saks’s story, you know that not only is she a brilliant professor of law, psychology, psychiatry, and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California’s Gould Law School, but she has also battled with schizophrenia, which emerged as her reality during her time at Yale Law School. Her TED Talk tells you more:

The article I just finished, “Life, Unrestrained: Escaping the Bonds of Mental Illness Means Loosening the Restraints of Stigma, Too,” shares Elyn’s perspective on the stigma associated with living with a mental illness and also her experience of being placed in mechanical restraints, sometimes for up to 20 hours at a time.

This mental health stigma in our society causes me pause.

The primary definition of stigma is:

“A sign of social unacceptability; the shame or disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable.”

And as stigmatized as people with mental health issues and conditions are, think of the prevalence. You’re likely familiar with statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness such as:

“1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.”

One in five.

I wonder when we can reach parity in treating mental health and physical health in the same way.

There are many “silent” physical illnesses, and we strive not to judge individuals living with diabetes, chronic pain, lupus, heart disease, epilepsy, etc.

But what about bipolar disorder, or PTSD, or addiction, or depression, or schizophrenia? What about “frequent fliers” and “med seekers”?

It’s terrifying to me to think that should I wake tomorrow with a disease of the mind, it might affect the way others treat me — that I might be shunned, I might be grossly misunderstood, I might lose my job, I might lose my friends or family, it might be difficult for me to find affordable quality mental health care — but if I woke up tomorrow with diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, I would be surrounded by love, support, and positive attitudes for my recovery or my ability to live a full life, despite my illness.
break the stigma of mental health
Photo: Billion Photos / Shutterstock

As I recall the article, it’s also terrifying to think that as with Elyn, a critical medical diagnosis could be missed when the behaviors manifesting from a physical condition mimic, in some ways, behaviors associated with a mental health diagnosis.

Steps toward breaking the stigma of mental illness

While I think many people work hard to set aside these stigmas, there is still much distance to go to bridge the gap created by stigmas. Elyn names three main reasons for her status of recovery:
  1. Appropriate treatment
  2. A strong support system of friends and family
  3. An engaging, supportive, and interesting work environment

As I travel this week to be with thousands of emergency room nurses and professionals supporting their work, I know I will hear the terms “frequent fliers” and “med-seekers.”

This is not a critique of the individuals who use those terms, but it might be a challenge for those who do to consider that the individual who is accessing health or mental health care services through the emergency department is likely not as fortunate as Elyn.

Perhaps the person doesn’t have appropriate, affordable treatment. Perhaps their family and friends, due to the challenges and stigma of mental illness, have abandoned them in their moment of greatest need. Perhaps they lack positive ways to engage in life because they don’t have access to a support group, or they struggle with employment for any number of reasons.

Meeting the physical and mental health needs of individuals accessing care through the high-paced, high-stress environment of an emergency department is a daunting task, no doubt.

I can’t wait to hear the stories of emergency departments that have taken a more person-centered, trauma-informed approach, even in this most challenging environment. (Need tools? Check out Verbal Intervention™ training.)
breaking the stigma of mental illness
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

I’m excited to hear stories of collaboration between emergency department staff and mental health professionals in the community and within the hospital who ensure that patients who are both medically and mentally frail are receiving the best treatment and transitions possible.

I’m excited to hear these stories because that means there are more people like Elyn Saks who can speak out and help us break the stigma of mental health conditions.

And let us know — please share in the comments how you help break the stigma in your work or your life.