It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s Reduce Its Stigma.
By Terri L. Rhodes, CLMS, CCMP, CPDM, MBA
Over the past 25 years, there has been sustained discussion about the U.S. healthcare system. More coverage, better insurance, new ways of providing care, cost containment, and prevention — all are welcome and necessary.
But it’s only in recent years that attention has turned to mental health in a more critical way. Healthcare professionals, policymakers, and others are moving beyond old stereotypes and taking long overdue steps to address this pervasive and debilitating illness. Yet, we still have a long way to go.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So, let’s start there. At the top of the list is reducing the stigma attached to mental illness.
Mental illness is often treated the way cancer was 50 years ago — in whispers and rumors. Or it’s demonized as the cause of crime and violence. While surveys conducted by our organization indicate the level of stigma among employers is essentially stable, it still remains too high.
Mental illness is like any other illness. While that’s reflected in laws effecting health insurance, it’s not always the way it is viewed and how those suffering from it feel. They often feel shame and embarrassment because of the way we identify and treat mental illness. Public stigma, much like workplace stigma, emerges with persistent stereotypes; for example, individuals with mental illness are dangerous or unpredictable. The result is more than half of those with mental illness do not seek treatment. Like any illness, untreated mental illness can result in other illnesses and behaviors, including chronic pain, substance abuse, etc. This can lead to even higher costs to employers.
It’s important to recognize that younger employees, in particular, tend to attach less stigma to depression, stress, and other mental illness.
Regardless of differences among employee groups, we all benefit when stigma is reduced. Overcoming stigmatization at every level of the organization is not only right, it is the only way to effectively address and lower the costs of mental illness in the workplace.
Here are four steps to help reduce stigma:
1) Know the Facts
Educate yourself about mental health. Learn the facts instead of believing the myths. Our website is a good place to start for free resources.
2) Educate Others
Find opportunities to pass on facts about mental health. If your co-workers present information that is not true, challenge their myths and stereotypes. Let them know that illness is illness, and everyone benefits when we talk about it honestly.
3) Be Aware of your Attitudes and Behavior
We all grow up with stereotypes and pre-conceived notions. But these views can be changed. People are unique individuals. They’re not defined by their illness, mental or otherwise.
4) Be Careful About the Way You Speak
The way we speak influences the way other people think and speak. In discussing mental health, it is best to use neutral and descriptive language. You wouldn’t use judgmental language to talk about kidney disease, and the same applies to an illness of the brain.
Of course, taking these steps won’t just reduce mental health stigma. It will also make for a fairer and more productive workplace. And in the process, lower many potential legal and reputational risks.
And in the end, equal and fair treatment gets to the heart of the issue.