My wife and I had a great opportunity to tell one of our many unfortunate experiences of mental health stigma as panel members of the Mental Health Family Advisory Council (MHFAC) at a Pediatric Mental Health Institute (PMHI) Grand Rounds conference at Denver Children’s Hospital. This wonderful, dedicated group of Children’s Hospital faculty, staff, and parent advisors presented Mental Health Stigma: The Family Perspective to a mixed audience of medical and mental health professionals. This presentation provided an opportunity for the MHFAC to highlight a few of the myths and truths of mental health, as well as, discuss solutions we as individuals, as a group, and even as a community could implement to change the conversation.
What truly amazed me was the response we received after our presentation. The flood of sincere appreciation for the families and individuals that shared their difficult and heartbreaking stories was encouraging and validating. How those stories touched them, opened their eyes, and for my wife and I, inspired one person to share her story with us. I felt privileged that we had touched another human being enough for them to share such an intimate part of their life with us.
So how do we fight the stigma of mental health? How can you be a champion for change? My opinion is the greatest weapon against the negative cogitations is talking about mental health. One of the questions that arose during the discussion period was, “What language do you suggest to use? For example should we say mental illness, health, disorder, disabled, etc.?” It was a great question because there are so many phrases and words to describe someone struggling with mental health issues. So many of the words used over the years have been negative, derogatory, and emotionally-charged leading to an unhealthy image; ultimately making it that much more difficult to talk about and get help.
The consensus from the discussion of the question was that, although there was not an absolute right answer, using positive wording would provide a better platform to discuss the topic. Phrases like mental health and mental strength; factual names like depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), etc., would be more widely accepted and inspire confidence to seek treatment. No matter what phrase or wording we use, we cannot wait to discuss this topic with those around us.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. Suicide is the second leading cause in children and young adults ages 10-34. Right now due to the tragic suicide of a celebrity, talking about mental health is forefront in the news. We, as a society, must continue this discussion all the way to our legislators demanding legislation and funding towards mental health education and awareness. Mental Health First Aid training should be as common as Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Some of the other solutions suggested and discussed at the conference were:
- Talk openly about mental health
- Educate yourself and others
- Be conscious of language
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness
- Show compassion for those with mental illness
- Choose empowerment over shame
- Be honest about treatment
- Don’t harbor self-stigma
Being willing to talk about the subject of mental health, whether it affects you personally or not, is such an important step towards breaking the stigma and affecting change. Sharing a post, an event, or making a positive comment about mental health might reach a friend, co-worker or family member needing a small sign to encourage them to seek out help. Everyone should be proud of who they are physically, mentally, and spiritually.