Fighting the Stigma around Mental Health and Addiction

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Discrimination of any kind is reprehensible. Pigeon-holing people based on this or that trait or condition is unethical on every level. When it comes to the bias that exists around those suffering from a mental health disorder or addiction, the end result can be nothing short of devastating.

Those battling these afflictions are often branded in a pejorative light, leading to feelings of shame, self-loathing, and isolation. This can cause the condition to worsen as the individual resists getting the help they need.

In recent years our society has witnessed a rising tide of suffering—increased rates of drug overdose deaths, mental illness, homelessness, and suicides—which is beginning to demand a change of attitude around these issues. No longer can the nation just turn a blind eye toward individuals who are in need of medical and psychological help. Still, the stigma persists.

Read: Finding Happiness in Addiction Recovery

So, what can we do to change that? How can people adjust their thinking, reject old biases, and reach out to those who may perish if they don’t receive professional help? It starts with a change of heart, strengthens with education, and becomes a force for good when exercised with compassion. Read on for some ideas for stopping the stigma and opening the doorway to wellness.

7 Ways to Fight the Stigma Around Mental Health Disorders and Addiction 

To create a social sea change about the way we view mental health issues, it helps to have a toolbox of simple initiatives. These can provide a basic framework for whittling away the stigma that clings to these very human struggles, and lead to a paradigm shift in attitudes.

1. Let’s all get real. Who among us does not have a loved one, friend, or colleague who suffers from depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder? We ourselves may battle these issues. Now is the time to lose the prideful attitude that we are somehow above it all and realize that people are fragile and vulnerable. We are flawed. We sometimes need a little help to overcome a difficulty like mental illness or addiction. It starts with that shift in attitude away from pride and toward empathy and compassion.

2. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help. Yet another problem with a prideful attitude is the tendency to believe that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness. Like you cannot hack life without help. This is one of the crippling fruits of the stigma that stubbornly attaches to mental health and substance use disorders, that belief that you are a wimp or are out of control, which can keep you from seeking treatment. The reality is that it is a sign of great courage and strength to admit the need for help, and to take the steps to get better.

3. Get educated. There are many misguided and utterly incorrect assumptions about addiction and chemical dependence. It is common for people to look down on someone who struggles with addiction, assuming the person asked for it, that somehow it was a choice they made. No one ever chooses to become an addict. Just as poor lifestyle choices may result in health conditions in certain people with genetic predispositions, such as heart disease or diabetes, someone with a genetic propensity to alcoholism, or any addiction, may learn that too late. Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease of the brain. 

Young people are sitting in circle and applauding while having a meeting in the modern library

4. Reach out. We tend to be shy about acknowledging someone else’s suffering. We don’t want to be nosy or intrude in someone’s personal life so we remain silent as we witness the signs of distress. That has got to change if we are to stop the stigma and save lives. Know the signs of emotional distress. Be aware of the red flags associated with addiction. Get familiar with suicide warning signs. Act. Make a call, send a text, initiate a conversation. Simply ask, “Are you doing okay” “Is there anything you’d like to share with me?” “Are you hurting?”

5. Get involved. Nothing speaks volumes like rolling your sleeves up and getting involved in a cause. Seek out community or church organizations that are active in helping the local youth. Find organizations that are vocal in their support of addiction and mental health treatment and recovery and volunteer your services or sponsor a bed. Actively support you family member or friend who is in recovery treatment—join them in their battle, accompany them to meetings if they desire, be there for them.

Read: What to Do When Your Mind and Body Are Telling You to Take a Break

6. Be a role model. Sometimes it just takes a positive example, someone who has stepped up and inspires others to follow in like manner. Be that example. Demonstrate compassion publicly by approaching someone who seems full of despair. Ask if they need to talk, or if they want some company. See individuals who are in pain as people, as living souls who have hit a low point and could use a kind gesture. For a loved one showing signs of mental illness or substance abuse, tell them you are available to join them for their first meeting with a recovery center. Offer your emotional support. That might be the impetus for them to agree to get help.

7. Use social media. If you have personally struggled in the past with addiction or mental illness, creating a social media platform, which can be completely anonymous if desired, can be discovered by others who share a similar struggle. By a transparent accounting of your own disease and subsequent recovery journey you can inspire others to seek mental wellness or sobriety. Twitter and Instagram have several such accounts and huge followings. These can be engines for removing the stigma through airing the real-life reality around these issues.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas for fighting the stigma around mental health issues and substance use disorders, hopefully it will spark some positive first steps.

About the Author

Ken Seeley is an internationally acclaimed interventionist, having years of experience in this field. Certified as a Board Registered Interventionist-Level 2, Seeley has worked full-time in the business of recovery and intervention since 1989. He is a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and ABC on the topics of addiction and intervention. He was one of three featured interventionists on the Emmy Award winning television series, Intervention, on A&E. He is also the author of “Face It and Fix It,” about overcoming the denial that leads to common addictions while bringing guidance to those struggling with addiction. Ken Seeley is the founder and C.E.O. of Ken Seeley Communities, a full spectrum addiction recovery program located in Palm Springs, California. 

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