HRC Blog

National Day Without Stigma

This post is from Dr. Drew Walther, a licensed clinical psychologist and National Chapter Director for Active Minds, Inc. Active Minds is a rapidly growing network of hundreds of student-led chapters at colleges and universities that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking.

Today is the sixth year we observe Active Minds National Day Without Stigma to promote awareness of harm of social stigma.  National Day Without Stigma’s original focus was to identify and eliminate stigma around mental health issues, but it has begun to expand to encompass other versions of stigma, including those faced by the LGBT community.

Take a moment to think about how you define it for yourself and in your life.  It is a word that so many LGBT people have witnessed and experienced firsthand, but many of us have trouble describing exactly what it is, how it operates, or how to change it.

Although the stigma and bias around sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same as stigma and bias toward mental health concerns, the two issues have a long history of conflation and confusion.
 
It wasn’t until 1971 that the American Psychiatric Association eliminated “homosexuality” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and peer-reviewed research continues to show it is not a disease to be cured.  Yet the LGBTQ community continues to confront acts of shaming and bias similar to those experienced by people with mental health disorders.  Additionally, for LGBTQ folks who also happen to struggle with a mental health disorder, the double stigma can be overwhelming.
 
Stigma can show up blatantly or subtly at all levels of interaction from large scale social, cultural, or institutional bias, or, individually as the exclusion or discrimination of the stigmatized person.  Perhaps most painful of all is the internal stigma that can arise when individuals begin to believe the widespread negative messages they receive from friends, family, and the media about the shame they should feel.  As a result, we hear and tell ourselves we are sinful, “less than,” and a danger to others.

Stigma continues to operate in the mainstream because it leads to the silencing of groups and individuals who might otherwise serve as advocates for the underrepresented.  Silence takes away our power, limits our ability to live open and honest lives, and serves to further shame the stigmatized group.

The reality is all groups facing stigma require understanding and compassion to empower individuals and unify efforts to contain, mitigate, and undo the damage stigma causes.  Stigma impacts us all, regardless of our membership to the targeted group.  Anywhere that stigma exists, no matter what kind, it negatively impacts mental health.  Individual and collective strength comes from facing stigma, identifying our own biases, and working to raise our awareness of how we stigmatize ourselves and others.

So what can be done to face and address stigma?  One starting point is looking at the words we use. Language makes a major impact on stigma and shaming.  In the same way that many people are unaware of the stigmatizing impact of "that's so gay," many folks with mental health disorders can be stigmatized by "that's so crazy." That phrase is sprinkled into everyday interactions without thought, but it can silence someone struggling with his or her mental health diagnosis.

Stigma can be addressed through increased intentionality about the choices we make and the words we use.  Thinking about our own experiences of feeling marginalized can build understanding and compassion for others.  

As former President Bill Clinton said, "Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of but stigma and bias shame us all.”   In an effort to spark and expand the conversation about mental health stigma, Active Minds is inviting you to participate in National Day Without Stigma this October 9th and throughout the year.  To learn more go to www.ActiveMinds.org/NDWS, and click “Community Action Kit” to take action in your community.  

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