Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Let’s talk about mental health stigma

With the increased availability of affordable health insurance and the requirement that plans cover both physical and behavioral health services, it should be easier to get health care services, including mental health treatment.

Yet some people are reluctant to get mental health services or even talk about it. Why is it so hard to talk about mental health issues? And why can’t we discuss mental health the same way we talk about other illnesses or physical disorders?

Research shows that 1 in 5 Americans lives with a mental disorder, and two-thirds of those don’t seek treatment because of a lack of knowledge, fear of disclosure, rejection by friends and family, discrimination, and mistrust of the mental health system. This is true even though most people can identify a time in their lives when they were concerned for their own mental health and well-being or that of a family member or friend.

Myths and misperceptions about mental illness can lead to fear, mistrust and violence toward people with mental illness. This is known as “stigma.” When people are labeled, shamed and disrespected because they are different, they and their families become victims of prejudice and discrimination.

Where do stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors start? Perhaps you’ve known someone with a mental illness in the family and you’ve seen the fear of “catching” it. Or you may fear for your own safety when you come across people talking to themselves or whose behavior seems threatening. The person may look different or appear homeless. While these are examples of social stigma, mental illness isn’t always so obvious; mental illness isn’t related to socioeconomic status and it isn’t always outwardly visible.

Not addressing stigma has negative consequences for individuals and the community. Untreated conditions can result in social isolation, difficulty in maintaining relationships, low self esteem, increased substance abuse, and even suicide or homicide. The benefits of reducing stigma in our own personal attitudes, as well as in policies and community responses, can have positive impacts on individual lives and a collective impact on our community’s health.

What can we do to challenge our own perceptions and imagine a world without mental health stigma?

1. Educate and inform – Seek community resources, provide professional development in the workplace, find support groups, and talk to others about mental illness and your own concerns.

2. Use respectful language – Don’t use terms like “crazy,” “lunatic,” “psycho.” Put the person first and use phrases such as “a person with schizophrenia.”

3. Advocate for social/cultural change – Encourage diversity and tolerance, challenge stereotypes, teach your children to be respectful and tolerant, check access to mental health services through your insurance plan.

4. Interact with compassion – Meet someone with a mental illness face-to-face, treat others with respect regardless of their appearance, recognize that an individual’s behavior may be a coping mechanism, see stigma as a social problem in our community that impacts us all, and practice changing your attitude to thinking differently.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness is a good investment. Seeing people’s differences as unique, instead of a problem, even if they need mental health care, promotes awareness and changes social norms. As a result, people living with mental illness feel less isolated, can get the support they need to connect with others, and are encouraged to speak out and overcome their fear and shame. For people living with a mental illness, overcoming the stigma is crucial to leading a productive and enjoyable life; your actions can make a difference and a positive contribution toward building a healthy, thriving community for us all.

Thurston Thrives is a County Commissioner-led initiative exploring how to improve the health of our community at many levels, including education, housing, physical activity, food access, and health care — including behavioral and physical health. Working to overcome the stigma of mental illness is yet another way we can all contribute to a healthier community.

Support and resources for dealing with mental illness are available locally through the Thurston/Mason office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at 360-493-6021 or