The consequences of mental health stigma are extensive. It makes mental illness seem like a character flaw, which is totally untrue, and can prevent people from seeking support that could help them manage their condition.
The worst part? People contribute to that stigma a lot more than they might realize.
Most well-meaning people don’t purposefully act in a way that doesn’t show compassion for the millions of people who have mental health disorders. But there are still some everyday behaviors that contribute to the negative stereotypes. Here are a few you should be mindful of, according to experts.
Casually throwing around terms like “depressed” or “OCD”
Sure, it’s sad if your favorite TV show goes off the air. You might seem quirky if you like to organize your things in a particular way. But saying either of those things make you “depressed” or “OCD” is false ― and trivializes real mental health conditions. “Awareness of language is essential,” said Shari Harding, a mental health expert and a professor of nursing at Regis College in Massachusetts. “We are all guilty of being imprecise or hyperbolic at times, but it’s important to avoid misusing language.”
Blaming mental illness for every mass shooting
Drawing an oversimplified connection between mental health and mass shootings sends an inaccurate message about mental health disorders. People who live with mental health disorders are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than the ones committing them. Fewer than 5 percent of gun-related killings are committed by someone diagnosed with a mental illness, according to a 2015 study.
Referring to someone as “psycho” or “crazy”
It’s common for people to use phrases like these to insult someone they think did something wrong. But such pejorative terms further perpetuates the inaccurate idea that people with mental illnesses should be ashamed or feared, according to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “People show mental health stigma by making inappropriate comments about the illnesses that ravage the mind,” Reidenberg said. “Often they think these off-the-cuff remarks are harmless, but the reality is that they hurt those living with mental illnesses, and their families, and they increase the misperceptions about the illnesses. We see this happen frequently in politics, sports and even among children.”
Labeling someone based on their illness
Think of it this way: You wouldn’t call someone who has cancer a “cancerous person.” The same rules apply to someone experiencing a mental health condition. “One of the most common accidents is avoiding use of person-first language, such as when people use terms like ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘borderline’ instead of ‘person with schizophrenia’ or ‘person with borderline personality disorder,’” Harding said. “The former terms are stigmatizing because they reduce the whole person to a diagnostic label.”
Judging or teasing someone displaying abnormal behavior
We see this a lot when people talk about celebrities. It’s often considered newsworthy when someone famous “acts out” ― either on social media or in real life ― but that behavior could be indicative of a mental health issue. Take former NBA player Delonte West, for example. A fan saw West walking outside a Houston fast food restaurant without shoes on in 2016, and documented the encounter on social media. Commenters were quick to make jokes and assumptions about West’s mental state, which can send the message to anyone experiencing mental health issues that their illness is humorous or doesn’t deserve compassion.
The same reaction occurred when news broke that former NFL player Aaron Hernandez died by suicide in jail, where he was serving a life sentence for a murder conviction. People mocked Hernandez’s death on social media, turning a very real mental health issue into a punchline by sharing memes and crude comments about suicide. This type of behavior, even if it’s meant to be lighthearted, greatly contributes to negative attitudes about mental health, according to Laura Nitzberg, the assistant director for psychiatric social work at the University of Michigan Medical Center.
“We all need to look at ourselves when we are around someone displaying mental illness,” Nitzberg said. “We need to address our own prejudices and biases. Mental illness is very common.”
The bottom line is that mental illness should be treated with the same sensitivity and understanding as any physical illness. Everyone is responsible for being aware of how they might be encouraging stigma ― and then course correcting.
“We all have a role to play in reducing and eliminating mental health stigma,” Reidenberg said. “If you hear it, correct it. If you read it, show it to others and explain to them why it is wrong. If you think it, look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to be someone who discriminates against another person who is living with a brain disease?’”