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In the past, social stigma has always surrounded the topic of mental illness, but, as our social awareness progresses, it seems like we’re getting better at creating more inclusive and accepting narratives.

This guide is for everyone who wants to inform themselves more about mental illness, for those coping with it, as well as for those wanting to provide support to their loved ones.

Overcoming Stigma

There is a good reason why people who experience mental health problems today still shy away from seeking help. Over the course of history, there has always been a veil around mental illness.

Throughout the centuries, psychiatric sanatoriums were often displaced from the cities, families would hide their “abnormal” members in shame, and let’s just say that the methods of “curing” ailments of the mind have been known to be bizarre. These complex social circumstances have bred so much stigma around the concept of mental illness that we’re still working to detangle truth from prejudice in hope of finding the best ways to treat it.

What Is Stigma?

Social stigma is when someone is treated in a bad way for having a trait or a characteristic rarely anyone else has. This trait is usually perceived as a disadvantage or really is a disadvantage in some way. This is how negative stereotypes around people with mental health problems are formed..

This further leads to discrimination, either direct, such as people remarking negatively about someone having mental health issues, or subtle, when people assume things about those who cope with mental illness, such as that they’re aggressive, unstable, or unable to live to the fullest in the “real world”.

An especially painful part of social stigma is self-judgment, which happens when we fear acknowledging we need help and becoming patients ourselves. Knowing that you’ve been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, psychosis, or bipolar disorder can shake your self-image.

The effects of stigma can include:

  • rejecting help or treatment,
  • lack of social integration,
  • bullying,
  • mobbing or other types of harassment,
  • self-sabotaging behaviors, etc.

However, it’s important to be aware that stigmatization is a consequence of fear, lack of knowledge, and a fixed mindset.

For example, the results of most school inclusion implementation projects are that the children these programs were initially created for are not the only ones who benefit from them. Other children experience many benefits from socializing and learning together with their peers with autism, ADHD, or other developmental challenges. Such projects enhance their communications skills and teach them empathy, kindness, and accepting differences.

Coping with Stigma

One of the main issues about getting diagnosed is that this revelation is so overwhelming, people start identifying themselves with it. Sometimes they start interpreting their past and present behaviors in the light of their new diagnosis. “My relationship broke because I was too anxious all the time, and I have emotionally suffocated my partner!” or “I shouldn’t even try to apply for this new job, I am depressed and probably too slow to be successful at it”, and many similar self-limiting affirmations and beliefs might run through our head.

However, our personalities can only be so much. Do you say “I'm the flu” when you catch the flu? Or do you hear anyone say “I’m diabetes” if they have diabetes? We guess not.

In the same manner:

You are not depressed, you have depression.

You are not psychotic, you have psychosis.

You are not bipolar, you have bipolar disorder, and so on.

Having a mental illness is very likely a temporary state of things caused by certain biological, psychological, or other system disfunction. Perhaps it takes more effort and personal involvement on your part to get better than is the case if you have the flu, and the path is not that linear, however, no one is their diagnosis, they just happen to have that diagnosis.

Furthermore, as one realizes that they’re ill just like they would be from any other sickness, the next logical step is to seek professional help. Don’t let stigma make you doubt yourself or feel shame. Mental health issues are not a sign of weakness, and they’re not something we could have kept under control. Self-judgment and stopping oneself from growing as a person is far more destructive and toxic than admitting we need help.

Next steps in the process of fighting stigma are to take ownership over the healing process. Besides actively participating in the treatment, one could also learn more about their and other similar conditions and educate others about it.

The last thing we’d like for you to keep in mind is that every maladaptation in adult life has its precursor in the past. Mental health problems in many cases used to be adaptive behaviors that helped us survive emotionally as kids or adolescents in certain situations, and they have remained a part of our behavioral pattern. Yet, they no longer “work” well for us, and there’s nothing bad about that. It’s just the time for a change.

How to Be a Supportive Other

how to overcome stigma

For many people, regardless of whether they’ve suffered from mental health issues, the main question is how to be supportive of others. The type of support provided by family members, a partner, or friends can slightly differ, but there are certain things that are the same regardless of the type of your relationship.

Learn to Recognize Signs and Symptoms

When we speak about physical illnesses, most of them have something professionally called “pathognomonic symptoms”. These symptoms tell us that we’re dealing with one particular illness, and not another one. It’s a symptom that excludes all other diseases as options.

With mental illness, it’s a bit more difficult and complex to figure out these pathognomonic symptoms. It’s also quite common for a person to have two conditions (comorbidity). For example, it’s not strange for someone with depression to also have anxiety attacks or even psychotic moments (delusions, hallucinations).

If your close friend, family member, or partner suffers from mental illness and you wish to support them, one of the first things you should do is learn about this illness.

Some of the Most Common Symptoms

For example, depression can often be recognized by its telltale “depressed mood” and “loss of interest in nearly any activity”.

The most common symptoms include a low mood, sleep disorder (too much sleep or too little sleep), loss of appetite, sexual desire, or the eagerness to socialize.

However, depression can also come in its masked form. In such a scenario, physical symptoms are more prevalent, such as aches and pain that have no logical source. Also, in their subconscious intentions to “fight off” depressive symptoms, people might exhibit the opposite of depressed behavior: put on too much makeup, wear colorful clothes, talk very loudly, etc. Among adolescents, depression quite often manifests in a desire to go out frequently, combined with excessive alcohol drinking and substance abuse.

Anxiety usually comes along with depression and manifests itself as an inexplicable, lingering fear. There are also phobias, which can be quite specific and involve extreme levels of fear, panic, and anxiety in contact with certain objects or related to certain situations.

Having this in mind, you can try to not take it personally when you’ve been blown off for some activity or meeting by a friend who’s overcoming mental health problems, as some symptoms of these illnesses may have affected their socializing and communicating habits. Instead, you can try to empathize and figure out an alternative way to approach them.

Finally, the state of psychosis is usually characterized by symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations, but it can be diagnosed in other circumstances too. Withdrawal, emotional flatness (which is different from depression), bizarre thoughts, mental blocks, loss of interest in social contact, strange perceptions (that are not yet hallucinations), strange experiences, and so on, can all be symptoms of a psychotic episode.

There are many other mental health issues to learn about, but for the purpose of showing how simple it can be to learn more about them, we’ve only listed the most prominent ones.

Practice Simple Presence

Although psychotherapy has branched out in many directions and developed a variety of different techniques, research on the success of those techniques and different schools of thought has revealed some quite surprising results: the techniques don’t matter. The quality of the relationship is what helps to make progress.

Many great minds in psychology have spoken about the importance of presence. Eric Berne named the pleasant encounter “a stroke”, while the Viennese expert on psychodrama, Jacob Moreno, spoke about the “encounter” and about “positive tele”, a mutual attraction that doesn’t necessarily fit into words.

When someone close to you is going through hardship, sometimes all you can do for them is to be present. Maybe mindfully listen to them sharing their worries fears, hold their hand, or sit in silence.

Simple presence is usually more active and meaningful to the other person than sharing advice, interpreting their situation, trying to find the reason or the cause for their state of being, or convincing them that “it’s all in their heads”.

Keep It Positive

Mental health issues can leave their mark on all aspects of our lives. People can lose their will to wake up in the morning, talk, or basically do anything. In these situations, it’s important to remain a positive presence in their lives.

Now, we’re not saying you should impose fake, excessive, toxic positivity, or pressure the other person to suddenly be happy. However, even in the darkest moments a positive attitude can lift up the burden and remind the person that not all battles are lost, and there is still some vitality, joy, and spirit surrounding them.

You can also give your friend a meaningful gift that sends a supportive and positive message. It should be something light and pleasant, such as our Life Is Right Now illustration book, filled with inspiring reminders that we as humans are doing the best we can, or the Choose Gratitude poster, part work of art, part motivational speaker.

Listen Actively

As we already mentioned, when someone close to you is coping with mental illness, presence and listening usually mean more than providing advice or offering “solutions”. Active listening is non-judgemental, patient, and reflective participation in the conversation.

Instead of interrupting the person you talk to, show them that you’re focused on them by repeating what they said or by summing up their words (“What you want to say by this is that you’ve been feeling blue for quite a while now?”).

You can also reflect on their words simply by stating that you understand them and by showing empathy, or seeking clarification when something isn’t completely clear to you. Seeking clarification can also help the other side make things more clear to themselves.

Support a Healthy Lifestyle

Whenever you notice signs of an intention for implementing healthy habits, do your best to support them. Suggest your participation or gift something that will support your close one on this journey.

For example, you can suggest freeing up time to take walks, jog, or exercise together. If they mention they’d like to start journaling, be the one to give them a journal that will help them reap the rewarding benefits of journaling experience.

Support every intention geared towards mental and physical health.

Special Things You Can Do as a Partner or Close Family Member

Now, of course, there are things you can do when mental illness has struck your closest ones: your partner or close family member (parent/child/sibling).

Design Mental Health Supporting Routines

We mention routines very often as the pillars of mental health. Even when all things are uncertain, managing to maintain one healthy routine can mean the world.

You can maintain a light and breezy positive morning and evening routine, perhaps accompanied by filling out your Five Minute Journals. Taking a couple of minutes to focus on yourselves, each other, and the positive things you have in your lives might work as a psychological support system.

Even if it doesn’t change things for the better, the fact that you’re managing to maintain a routine is more than enough.

Participate In Family Therapy Sessions

If possible, encourage and participate in family therapy sessions. Whether they’re privately arranged, a part of hospital treatment, or local support groups, you can play an important supportive factor.

In case your close person is not willing to start psychotherapy (yet), don’t push them. Try talking about the topic and try to normalize the process of visiting a therapist.

Speak About Your Feelings Openly

Often, if we share our feelings about the situation or the other person, regardless of their current state of being, we can play an important mirror for them and help them see their reflection.

Sharing our feelings can also encourage the other person to talk about their feelings too, which can bring people closer together. Sharing feelings enhances mutual trust and proximity and makes us feel supported and safe.

Dealing with mental health issues is never easy, as they always involve and affect more than one person. Whatever the situation may be – there’s always something else to do. There is always a step to be made and room for improvement. After all, there’s something to be grateful for every day, and some mental illness survivors say they’re grateful even for the experience of the illness, as overcoming it made them stronger, more open, and self-aware.

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