Mental Health: Let’s Keep on Talking

Loretta Jay, co-founder of B Stigma-Free, is a nationally-recognized, inspirational advocate who has published, spoken and testified extensively on complex issues regarding child protection, mental health and specialized healthcare populations. In reflection of May’s Mental Health Month and our #BreakTheStigma Campaign, she explains why raising awareness about mental illness should be a year-round initiative.

For 66 years U.S. presidents have declared that the month of May shall be a time to acknowledge and raise awareness about people’s mental health. As this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s reflect upon its importance, and consider the steps we can take to continue raising awareness about mental health. Personally, I think it is important to talk about mental illness all year long. But I embrace occasions when politicians, community groups, nonprofit organizations, the media and others actively seek out opportunities to have these important conversations and shed light on issues we don’t often discuss.

Too frequently, it seems like many of us in society are not connecting the dots about why it is important to address mental health issues and how we can effect change in current policies and in the way we think about mental health. Health insurers, for example, have different rules for coverage of mental illnesses. While most folks have no problem casually mentioning that they had an appendix removed or sustained an injury, diseases of the brain are revealed in hushed tones — if at all. We need to feel safe acknowledging that our mental health status may fluctuate: More than one in five (22.5 percent) U.S. adults will experience a mental illness each year. Our collective reluctance to talk about mental health is rooted in a widespread belief that people who have a mental illness are less than others. This is stigma. It is harmful and leads to isolation, discrimination, and impedes people from getting necessary help.

More than one in five (22.5 percent) U.S. adults will experience a mental illness each year.

Fear typically drives stigma, which affects both society’s denial of its prevalence, and its systemic disparity. Too often, when there is a discussion about someone having a mental illness, it revolves around a headline-worthy event. This leads people to inaccurately believe that people who have a mental illness are likely violent or dangerous. In reality, they are no more violent than the general population, and are more likely to be a victim of a crime than to commit one.

Fear typically drives stigma, which affects both society’s denial of its prevalence, and its systemic disparity.

Research guides efforts to overcome this sort of stigma, suggesting three strategies: Increase understanding and reduce fear through direct contact with people who have a mental illness; create opportunities for learning more about mental illness and people’s experiences; and upend inaccurate perceptions about mental illness. When we talk about mental health we establish normalcy, thus reducing the unknown and giving people the courage to acknowledge the state of one’s own mental health.

When we talk about mental health we establish normalcy, thus reducing the unknown and giving people the courage to acknowledge the state of one’s own mental health.

B Stigma-Free is a new, national nonprofit that tackles the polarization that often occurs due to people’s mental illness, weight, disease, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation, height, race, gender, etc. Awareness efforts oftentimes reach people who already get it. Meaning, the groups that spread the word about mental illness and related stigma are connecting with others who are in agreement. Their challenge is identifying and involving those who aren’t yet convinced. B Stigma-Free collaborates with divergent organizations to get the word out between these different groups. We are talking and want others to talk too. A lot. When we talk about mental illness, examine circumstances that lead to stigma and discrimination, and expose fallacies, we reduce stigma by changing how people with a mental illness are perceived.

Awareness efforts oftentimes reach people who already get it…Their challenge is identifying and involving those who aren’t yet convinced.

Our collective goal is to create a cultural climate where people have the greatest opportunity to live physically and mentally healthy lives in an all-inclusive society. Activities that engage us to participate in the conversation are ideal. Each of us, as individuals and as groups, must continue to talk about mental illness within our circles, to our friends and colleagues, and those who aren’t yet on board.