The Manifestation of Stigma When Discussing Mental Health

Believe it or not, you may be the reason someone is not seeking the help they very much need. Yup, I said it. And I need to say it again.

You may be the reason someone is not seeking the help they very much need.

This month (September) is National Suicide Prevention Month and the goal of this post is to support us in recognizing the ways our language as allies and members of the Mental Health community can be damaging to those who are truly suffering.

Mama says “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

Well, what about those moments when something needs to be said and you just don’t know what to say, so you opt to be silent just because you don’t want to offend? Damaging.

What if someone tells you they just moved, and they are struggling with their transition, and you are experiencing the same thing? If you don’t say something, you just missed out on an opportunity to give and receive support. That too can be- damaging.

Well, what if my co-worker just experienced the loss of a loved one and I’m just “weird” and “awkward” when it comes to offering condolences? If no-one, including you, acknowledges the fact that this co-worker is in need of support and is grieving a loss and is still trying their best to show up to work, this too can be damaging.

If you ask me, silence is the number one adversary when it comes to decreasing the stigma associated with raising mental wellness. Silence can be deadly, for the sufferer and the potential supporter. When we are silent we allow emotions such as fear, shame, guilt, and embarrassment to breed poor perceptions, unhealthy assumptions, create inaccurate information, and offensive microagressions which we unconsciously express through our words and actions to the space and people surrounding us.

I’ve been reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD. and I became inspired to share some statements that have been spoken to me that have hindered me from seeking mental health support when I needed it most. Here they are:

  1. You have no reason to feel sad, your life is good. Just be happy.
  2. I’m not talking about you, you’re different.
  3. You’re in therapy? So, you must be crazy crazy?
  4. Don’t say you want to kill yourself, just say you’re in pain.
  5. Why waste your time and money with a therapist, just talk to me.
  6. I know you, nothing is wrong with you.
  7. These kids these days are just too sensitive.
  8. There she go, being bi-polar again.
  9. You just need to pray.
  10. If she really wanted to kill herself she would’ve did it already.

These are real words, from loved ones, with no intention to harm, yet these words caused me great pain. This pain resulted in an enormous amount of silence, which led to me feeling misunderstood. In my journey, micro aggressions have been one of the most destructive ways people have expressed their unconscious bias towards me as a person who lives with Dysthymia. They have created their own narrative in their heads about who I am and what I am capable of doing.

In her book, DiAngelo states “If I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them.” If we really want to help we need to talk to those who are on this mental wellness journey about their experiences and what hurts and what helps them, so we can be better supporters.

If you don’t know what to say:

  • Be honest. Acknowledge, you are not sure what to say, but you care.
  • Ask “How can I be of support to you right now in this very moment.”
  • Just make space to listen. #IWillListen

I would like for us to become more aware of the language we use when talking about mental health with anyone. Family members, co-workers, students, strangers, etc.
Remember: Not saying something, is saying something.

Resources

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