Discrimination is defined as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things.”

In many ways, mental illness is considered society’s last taboo.

In recent years society has made great strides in eliminating many other taboos. We no longer flinch away from discussions surrounding cancer, HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse/violence, and sexuality – just to name a few. Yet conversations surrounding mental illness continue to be few and far between, and oftentimes when those conversations happen they are shrouded in discrimination.

What are some examples of discrimination?

We are OK with any part of our body breaking except our brains. This emphasis and favoritism towards physical wellness exclusive of brain wellness is evident in many everyday situations:

  • If a friend breaks a bone, we will sign their cast and ask to hear the story of what happened. When a friend is struggling with anxiety, we tell them to “calm down” or “it’s all in your head”
  • If someone has to take insulin every day to manage diabetes, we don’t bat an eye. If someone has to take an antidepressant every day to manage depression, we ask them when they will “stop relying on artificial happiness”
  • If someone has to be hospitalized for a week for pneumonia, we send them get well cards and flowers. If someone has to be hospitalized for a psychiatric problem for a week, we ignore them or push them away.

These are just a few examples of how individuals with mental health problems are discriminated against.

In the same way that cancer, heart disease, or diabetes are medical illnesses that require specific treatment, mental health problems are medical illnesses that require specific treatment.

Why is discrimination so bad?

Discrimination adds additional pain to an individual struggling with a mental health problem which impairs their ability to become well as quickly as possible. To the weight of their struggles, discrimination brings experiences and feelings of:

  • Shame
  • Blame
  • Hopelessness
  • Distress
  • Misrepresentation in the Media
  • Reluctance to seek and/or accept necessary help

Discrimination is the primary reason why the state of mental health services in America is at sub-par levels. Many individuals inaccurately believe that mental health problems are not true problems, and thus the field of mental wellness does not receive the awareness, funding, or education that it deserves.

Discrimination also affects families. Parents may feel shameful or embarrassed if their child is struggling, for example. Many individuals wait until stage four crisis before they or their loved ones get help, because they believe they are not “sick enough” to qualify for assistance. This is actually being negligent to their health and wellbeing.

What can be done to fight discrimination?

The primary weapon against stigma is education and respect.

Discrimination ultimately results from a lack of understanding. By addressing common mental health myths, by spreading education, by respecting the individual, by focusing on hope, and by correcting others who are spreading misinformation, we can fight and eventually eliminate the discrimination that we are facing.

On a personal level, you can fight discrimination by making the conscious choice to see past an illness. We are not defined by diagnoses, and anyone who is struggling deserves just as much love, compassion, respect, and empathy as anyone else.

How can I cope with discrimination?

Get prompt, appropriate treatment: Discrimination’s most damaging factor is that it can be a huge barrier to getting help. Don’t let discrimination get in the way of your road to health. Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness by ignorant people stop you from taking back control of your health and your life. Proper treatment, inclusive of talk therapy, helps improve self-esteem, which helps to overcome unfounded, negative judgement.

Join a support group: Group therapy is a great way to feel connected to others who are in the same boat as you. It helps tremendously to spend time with individuals who understand what you’re going through and who will not judge you based on a diagnosis.

Don’t equate yourself with your diagnosis: You are not depressed, you have depression. You are not bipolar, you have bipolar. You are not schizophrenic, you have schizophrenia. You are not your illness, and by being sure to separate yourself from being labeled you can remind yourself that first and foremost, you are human and have as much worth as anyone else.

Don’t isolate yourself: You may be tempted to bottle up your feelings and keep them a secret in fear of being judged by others, but this will likely make things worse. Having a support system that you can talk to about what’s going on is invaluable to working through your illness.

Mental Health Stigma Busters

  1. A mental illness should be treated the same way as a physical illness.
  2. Mental illnesses are legitimate medical illnesses that require specific treatment.
  3. People who struggle with mental health problems are not making it up or doing it for attention.
  4. Mental health problems can be successfully treated and most can be cured or put into remission.
  5. Principally speaking, taking medication for a mental health problem is no different than taking medication for a physical health problem.
  6. Mental health problems should be treated as soon as possible, during stage one. You do not need to wait until you are “sick enough” to get help.
  7. As many as 1 in 4 Americans struggle with a mental health problem. If you are not struggling, you probably know someone who is.
  8. People with mental health problems are no more violent or dangerous than any other person.

Speak out against stigma: If you feel comfortable, consider telling your story. The more people talk about and normalize mental health problems, the more stigma will break down and the more likely others will reach out for help. Who knows, your story may drastically help someone else!

Let it roll: Sometimes people say or do things that are insensitive. Most often this is out of ignorance, not malicious intent. If someone is contributing to stigma, kindly educate them on the truth. Sometimes, however, you just have to let an ill-informed comment roll off your back. Don’t let someone else’s lack of education bring you down.