Behavioral Health

Reducing the Stigma with Mental Health

While the stigma surrounding mental health has lessened in the last decade, there is still misunderstanding associated with people with mental health conditions. Margaret Simkins, LMSW, explains how we can all work to reduce those negative associations.

May. 22, 2023 6   min read

A woman wearing a mask talks with a therapist

People with mental illness “often describe the consequences of mental health stigma as worse than those of the condition itself,” as stated in the medical journal The Lancet.

Seeing how people talk about (or avoid talking about) mental health can lead people with mental health disorders to internalize that stigma.

Margaret Simkins, LMSW, is a PROS senior clinician and therapist with Rochester Regional Health. She talks about some of the progress society has made with reducing mental health stigma, the work we still have to do, and small ways to make meaningful change.

Connecting physical and mental health

Until the late 1990s, clinicians and society alike generally talked about health as something that was purely physical. There was not a significant focus on how a person’s mental health might impact how their body functioned.

However, the last 25-30 years have shown how a person’s physical and mental health are connected.

Research points to the connections between people who live with mental health disorders and chronic physical health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

“The connection between mental and physical health is very real and is present in all human beings,” Simkins said. “To be able to talk about that connection and confidently know it is valid is something real and important to patients, their families, and health care providers.”

Changing how we talk about mental health

According to Simkins, the language we use to talk about mental health is one of the biggest contributing factors to maintaining the stigma associated with disorders.

Using phrases such as “You are bipolar” or “You are depressive” tend to promote internalized stigma and create the perception that mental health conditions are a problem or a diagnosis that inextricably label a patient. Talking about a patient separately from their symptoms or experiences (e.g., “You have symptoms of bipolar disorder” or “You are experiencing depression”) can make a significant difference.

Another shift in language is how we talk about symptoms. By talking less about the symptoms a person has with their mental health and more about those person’s experiences, family members and providers can help patients with barriers that get in the way of achieving their goals.

“This shift focuses less on the problems and obstacles, and more on the goals a person can achieve,” Simkins said.

Choosing positive, strength-based language shifts the emphasis from what a person has not been doing to achieve a goal and, instead, makes an effort to point out what they have accomplished. This empowers the person to continue improving their mental health.

Simple strategies

There are many ways to make incremental progress in making someone feel less stigmatized about living with a mental illness.

Listen and validate: Being open to hearing about a person’s experiences with their mental health is a good step to take. Asking someone, ‘I notice you’re having a loss of words now’ or ‘It looks to me like you’re feeling angry right now. Are you having that experience?’ puts them in a position to describe what they are going through instead of being labeled as having a condition.

Person-centered approach: Using respectful language that focuses on a person and not a problem makes that person feel valued and appreciated.

Self education: Taking extra time to learn more about someone’s mental health condition and how to support them goes a long way to making that person feel validated. Showing someone else cares enough to put in that kind of effort can make them feel seen.

Empowering & prioritizing people: Valuing people more than their diagnoses or symptoms reduces the stigma around mental illness. Concentrating on the steps a person is taking to meet their goals instead of their symptoms can help boost their self-esteem and self-confidence as they work toward becoming a healthier self – physically and mentally.

“We’ve talked about physical wellness for the majority of written human experience,” Simkins said. “Mental health has been a bullet point of culture. We’re still working out language around that. We need to be flexible and listen to the people who have these experience to help us grow and change.”

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