Breaking Down the Mental Health Stigma

By Dr. Ryan Meshulam, MD, MS

May 2022 – COVID-19 has had a profound effect on us all. Many people’s lives have been altered by the pandemic’s challenges. If you have not been challenged on a personal level, then you likely know someone who has been impacted by the events of the pandemic.

Social distancing for prolonged periods of time has changed the way we interact with one another. We have become more aware of our surroundings, and a division of beliefs on how to handle each phase of the pandemic has led some people to mistrust others more. With all the changes we have faced over the past two years with regards to our personal experiences and the larger concept of living in our new normal as a society, it would not be surprising if our mental health has been impacted to some degree.

In my experience in the field of Psychiatry, mood disorders and anxiety disorders especially seem to have become more common over the course of the pandemic. On a positive note, as a nation, heightened awareness of mental health and the increased need for related services has generally led us to become more accepting of people who are suffering from mental illness. The focus on mental illness throughout the pandemic has brought about more conversations about various disorders. Therefore, the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly shrinking, motivating more people to seek out services.

However, mental health has not been completely destigmatized, so it is important to continue to raise awareness, as with this May’s Mental Health Awareness month. Increased awareness has the potential to normalize conversations relating to mental illness and provide education about services and resources that are available.

Stigma with regards to mental illness can often instill a sense of shame or self-doubt. Mental illness is so often perceived mistakenly as a weakness. Many think we somehow should be capable of controlling the ailment without intervention. However, if mental illness interferes with a person’s ability to function, then they need a professional to make an evaluation and begin a course of treatment, which does not always involve medication.

Despite often feeling that they are alone in their condition, many people are struggling with mental health. Whole communities of peers are suffering, and professionals are available to help. By seeking treatment, one can gain insight into one’s symptoms, which can facilitate connections with other people who are dealing with something similar. Gaining insight in relation to one’s own mental health can also help build self-esteem and overcome self-judgment.

Additionally, stigma can often cause us to want to isolate further. Rather than becoming withdrawn, we should try to reach out and accept help from trustworthy people in our lives who we feel will be compassionate and understanding.

Other ways to help combat stigma include joining support groups such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), as they offer various local programs and internet resources to help educate those with a mental illness, their family members, or even the general public.

Furthermore, children with mental illness can be and have been affected by stigma as well. Encourage the children in your life to talk to their teachers, administrators, or their parents to acquire guidance with managing their mental health.

When our mood and anxiety begin negatively to impact our daily lives, it is essential to have a dialogue about seeking treatment and to not allow the fear of being labeled with a mental illness deter one from getting help. The earlier that mental illness is detected, the sooner one can get in touch with a mental health professional to evaluate, diagnose, and begin a safe treatment plan towards recovery.

Being proactive can ultimately lead to a better prognosis than if a condition is left untreated. Other people’s judgement usually stems from a lack of understanding, rather than factual information. By speaking out against stigma, we have the power to educate society about the importance of mental health, reduce misinformation concerning mental illness, and raise awareness of the resources that are available.

Dr. Ryan Meshulam, MD, MS, is Cornerstone Family Healthcare’s Chief of Psychiatry. In addition to seeing patients, he oversees our Behavioral Health program. Dr. Meshulam wrote this article for Mental Health Awareness Month 2022.