How You Can Help Destigmatize Mental Illness


It took me a very long time to get comfortable saying that, and I still have a minor issue with revealing my mental health conditions to the unacquainted, because of the stigma that mental illness still carries. In my mind, they hear “I am mentally ill” and immediately imagine me coming after them with a raincoat and an axe, Patrick Bateman style. Or they think that nothing I say can be trusted. Or that I’m about two minor insults away from harming myself.

I’m none of these things, of course. It’s true that I have no chill, but giving spiders a few extra whacks is about as violent as I get. I’m honest to a fault, and I haven’t felt the desire to harm myself in a very long time. But these aren’t things neurotypical people believe that people with mental illness are capable of being. That’s a huge problem, and it will only be fixed if we actively work to destigmatize mental illness in our daily lives.

A recent article from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) journal, Monitor on Psychology, quotes the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Patrick W. Corrigan, saying: “The stigma of mental illness ‘is in the same category as racism and sexism’ … ‘It permeates all of society and affects people at all levels.'” That stigma makes life harder for people with mental illness in myriad ways. People who do not exhibit the “classic” symptoms of a mental illness often struggle to explain their condition to others, who may label them as overly dramatic or attention-seeking. Those who have never encountered mental illness sometimes attempt to explain away symptoms as laziness, weakness of character, immaturity, or an unlikable personality.

Some people may refuse to seek diagnoses or treatment, because to do so would be to admit that they need help, and because they fear losing people close to them. People who want help might not be able to find it, or may lose coverage, because the United States “routinely fails to provide the most basic services for people with mental illness.” And although the Fair Housing Amendments Act protects people with mental illness from discrimination, prohibitive rental costs in many areas drive individuals who rely on Supplemental Security Income checks to housing options that do not provide them with full tenant rights.

The stigma of mental illness continues, in part, because many people who have no experience with it do not believe that neuroatypical individuals deserve equality. The media routinely associates mental illness with disgusting displays of violence, and so many neurotypical people believe that isolating people with psychological conditions away from so-called “normal” communities is the most beneficial solution for all parties. It follows, with this line of logic, that treating adults with mental illness like children who are incapable of making decisions about their lives, is the only way to ensure a community’s safety. None of this is true, of course, but — once again — nothing will change if we do not actively destigmatize mental illness.

The first step is to stop using ableist language. Your ex-girlfriend is not crazy or insane, nor is she a lunatic or a psycho. Each of these words has a negative connotation that connects to a long history of abusive treatments and policies. I know you’re used to using them. I am too, and I still slip up sometimes. As Everyday Feminism’s Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg puts it, “[t]hese words seem so ‘natural’ to people that they go un-critiqued a great deal of the time.”

The question of whether or not to use ableist words and phrases is left up to people with those specific disabilities to answer, and, even if your diagnosed-bipolar aunt routinely uses “crazy” to describe herself, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to use it at all, no matter whether you’re talking about her, me, or your schedule. So cut it out.

If someone tells you they have a mental illness, believe them. I don’t care that you don’t think the person in front of you has anything to be upset about. If someone tells you that they feel depressed, anxious, triggered, out-of-control, or just not quite right, your only job is to believe them, regardless of their age, sex, gender, or orientation.

Your next job is to help them talk about their options for seeking treatment, but you have to understand that neuroatypical people are capable of making decisions for themselves. Depression and anxiety don’t make my feelings or fears any less valid, nor do they compromise my ability to manage important matters. Unless they are a danger to themselves or others, you should trust people with mental illness to make decisions regarding their treatment options, living situations, relationships, education, employment, and bodily autonomy. You cannot destigmatize mental illness if you treat the people living with it like children.