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Learning the Facts and Reducing the Stigma Around Mental Health

May 20, 2018

Since 1949, May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. This past Friday a few of my friends and I who are members of the Mental Health Club at my school, ran a workshop to educate students about mental health, and the misconceptions and stigma surrounding it. Our hopes were that students would take this information into their lives and share what they learned with others.

The workshop was very well received, and so I decided to share our presentation with you on this blog. If there’s any one thing you get out of this, it should be that mental health is just as important as physical health, and shouldn’t be thought of as any less.  

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What Is Mental Health?

Mental health includes everything from our emotion and psychological health to our social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It is also one of the key factors that determine how we handle stress, act around others, and make choices in life. Mental health illnesses can affect people at any age or of any gender. Some forms of mental illnesses may develop in childhood, while others forms may not emerge until adulthood. Thus, mental health is important at every stage of life and should never be disregarded or ignored. Mental health problems are quite common and it can be very difficult to tell if someone has a mental health issue. It is important, therefore, important to be conscious about what we say. Help is available, however, so those struggling with a mental health illness can get treatment and get better. Many even recover completely, thus it’s important to never to lose hope.

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What Causes a Mental Illness?

If you experience mental health problems over the course of your life, it could affect your thinking, mood, and behavior. The primary cause of mental illnesses is unknown. Researchers generally think mental illness results from a mix of what's going on in your body and what's happening around you. Some people may have a predisposition for a certain illness that gets triggers by their environment or a negative experience. In other words, a mental illness can be caused by either biological factors, such as your genes or brain chemistry, life experiences, such as trauma or abuse, or family history.

 

Physical vs. Mental Health

To better understand mental health, we can begin by asking ourselves a few questions. Have I been sick within the last year? What was the cause and what were the symptoms? Did I seek help from a doctor? Did I take medicine? How long did the sickness last and, did I fully recover? Just like being physically ill, people with a mental illness have symptoms, can seek help, may take medicine, and can recover. Although a person with a mental illness may not exhibit any physical symptoms, they’re still deserving of our care and understanding. That person may be suffering more than someone with a cold or the flu.

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Understanding the Different Types of Mental Illnesses

The many different types of mental health illnesses are often mistakenly considered the same. Those who do not understand the different types of mental illnesses often assume that a person struggling with one illness is struggling with all. Some people are severely affected by their mental health and others experience their illness only occasionally and the effects are minimal. However, the various illnesses should all be regarded as important and significant.

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What You Say vs. What You Mean

Often we unintentionally say things that are hurtful to others. This can be especially true regarding mental health. Because it’s very difficult to tell if someone has a mental health challenge, it’s important that you be aware of how you use certain language that evokes mental states. A common example is when someone says, “I have so much anxiety!” Or, “she is so bipolar.” Both of these examples show insensitivity to mental health issues. There is a difference between having anxiety and being anxious. Having anxiety is a clinical mental health illness, where being anxious is a normal emotion which everyone experiences from time to time. Thus, it’s okay to say that you are anxious but is not to say you have anxiety. We’ve all made these mistakes before, so don’t start to fret. However, it’s important to learn the real meaning of these expressions so you can avoid offending someone.

Below is a list of phrases my peers and I found that would help you better understand the language surrounding mental health.

An example of the misuse of language on this list is “committed suicide”. The word “commit” is associated with a crime. Being suicidal is not a crime or a choice, it is a result of a serious illness that people have to fight despite what they want to do. Therefore, the correct expression is “died by suicide”.

An example of the misuse of language on this list is “committed suicide”. The word “commit” is associated with a crime. Being suicidal is not a crime or a choice, it is a result of a serious illness that people have to fight despite what they want to do. Therefore, the correct expression is “died by suicide”.

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The Stigma

According to Merriam Webster, stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation.” Unfortunately, it is common that those with mental health conditions are viewed negatively because it is believed that something is “wrong” with them. These marks of discrimination and negative attitudes are the results of a lack of understanding about mental health. Thus, people will continue to make poor assumptions unless they educating themselves on the issues. The stigma around mental health can be reduced if people understand that the most hurtful comments are untrue. It’s best not to use language to describe someone that you would not want to be used to describe you.

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What to Do If You Know Someone Struggling With a Mental Illness

Stigma is toxic to people’s mental health because it creates an environment of shame, fear, and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment. Most people keep their struggles to themselves because they are afraid to tell anyone for fear they will make fun of them or judge them. It is so very important to be conscious of what we say and to create an environment where everyone feels safe and comfortable confiding in others.

If you are ever struggling with your feelings or know someone who is, you should:

  • Talk to a trusted friend about directing you to an adult.
  • Talk to your family.
  • Go straight to a trusted adult, counselor, teacher, advisor, coach, etc.
  • Figure out what habits make you happy and make time for them.
  • Go to a mental health professional (counselor, psychologist, social worker, etc.)
  • Put your mental health first, even if you have work or various commitments.
  • Practice self-care and coping strategies, such as mindfulness or deep breathing.
  • Remember that YOU MATTER
  • Remind yourself that this feeling will pass and you will feel better.
  • Find what works for you: Don’t give up if something isn’t working, it may take a while, but continue to experiment and try new things.
  • Know that you’re doing your best and that is all you can do.
  • Ask for help: if you don’t know what to do either for yourself or for someone else, ask for help. You don’t need to know all the answers. There are specialists out there for that reason, and it’s their job to help those in need.

 

Finally, it’s important to remember only a professional knows how to effectively help and can properly diagnose. Many people may feel and truly believe that talking with a friend is all they need, but for true mental health challenges and severe symptoms, this can be dangerous. Unnecessary stress may also be placed upon the friend.

 

How to Get Involved and How You Can Make a Difference

One of the biggest reasons mental health isn’t known as much as it should be is because few people talk about it. Here are some ways that you can spread the message about mental health so together we can help eliminate the stigma!

  • Tell people
  • Share your story
  • Ask people how they are feeling and talk about it, make them feel like they are not alone
  • Read about the cause
  • Volunteer at local mental health organizations
  • Use hashtags on social media such as #MHSM (Mental Health Social Media), #reducethestigma, #youmatter
  • Spread the word via social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs)
  • Encourage your family and friends to do things that are good for your mental health and well being. Take time off and relax; do things you enjoy; exercise; get fresh air; eat nutritious food; create a balanced environment.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Know what to watch for in yourself and those around you. Symptoms can be different in men and women.

You don’t need to commit a lot of time and energy to raise awareness about mental health. Little actions can be very helpful such as talking to your neighbor or listening to a podcast. I hope that you learned something new from this post, and will take what you learned to help others!

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