Actions Speak Louder Than Fighting Mental Health Stigma

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who talks a million miles an hour? When listening to him it's like trying to follow a river that keeps taking detours and tributaries until you become so lost you can't even remember the original topic of discussion? Or how about when you can hardly get a word in because someone is so excited to tell you her ideas you're not sure she's stopping to take a breath?

That's what it's like talking to me.

My mouth and brain are constantly trying to keep up with each other, and the result is that I have what has been labeled as Pressured Speech. It's something that's always plagued me, even more so when I'm anxious. Although I realize I'm doing it, it's almost impossible for me to stop. Which I realized as I got older it can cause some people to grow annoyed, or avoid striking up a conversation with me altogether.

Unfortunately, this realization evolved into something else: self-stigma. I am different. And worse than that. I sometimes feel irreparably broken. And EVEN WORSE: many others think I am, too.

Don't force people to change

I don't try to change what people think about my disorder. Educate them? Sure. Have an open dialogue with them? You bet. But attempting to control the mindset of others, attempting to erase the stigma attached to my illness, is an exercise in futility. The mental health community needs to fight prejudice and discrimination. Stigmatizing any mental health condition is supposed to make everyone on both sides feel better. When people talk about your "mental health challenges or issues". They don't seem to correlate the brain is another organ like a pancreas, kidney or heart. Do we say diabetics have pancreas health illness or a sick pancreas? Most people just don't understand the brain can be sick or have an illness. When people start seeing the similarity of other illnesses the fear will die along with the prejudice and ignorance.

Will we change everyone's mind? No. But just like the civil rights movements of the past, prejudices will slowly begin to be marginalized, isolated, and eventually eradicated. It minimizes what those with any diagnosis go through without respecting the challenge of the illness. Focusing on the raw reality of what people with mental health challenges experience is scary but necessary to combat discrimination and open real conversations about it.

Change comes from action

As Natasha Tracy, a mental health advocate, spoke about at The Family Conference in Vancouver, B.C.," it's really none of our business what anyone thinks of us. What matters is how they act towards us. What matters is if they treat us as equals, with dignity and respect, with the same rights as everyone else. Equal access to health care, housing, and equality in the workplace." These things affect our lives and well-being far greater than mere thoughts from the general public. If the general public thinks I'm crazy, well, so be it!

Anti-stigma campaigns, in general, are born from good intentions. Advocates for mental health have accomplished a lot in their effort to de-stigmatize mental illness. But is it the most effective use of our time and energy--trying to get into the minds of others in an attempt to reprogram how they view the mental health community? Perhaps our focus instead should be on the actions of others in response to mental health disorders. Because in reality, actions are what is going to affect anyone with a mental health issue far more than ideas or thoughts.

Take, for example, civil rights activists. Historically speaking, these activists knew they were not likely to change the "values" of those who judged them. They instead spent focused on making legal arguments supporting their cause, forcing the courts to make decisions for society as a whole regardless of the percentage of those who were close minded and hateful. They didn't try to get the country to accept them. They fought for their rights. They fought for equality and dignity.

Education is key

The mental health community can use this as an example for similar results. Going public with what people with mental illness face--be it cruel and unjust experiences at the hands of anyone from family members to employers to health care providers--we can reshape our community's perception and treatment. After all, the ones who are supposed to provide protection and support should be the biggest advocates for the mental health community.

It has been found that those who know someone with a mental health challenge is more likely to be less judgmental and have a more positive view of mental illness. We can demystify mental disorders by educating the public, advocating for progressive and fair mental health laws, and encouraging everyday people and celebrities to bring personal stories to the forefront and show how each person has his or her different set of symptoms and can live a fairly normal life with support, self-care, and personalized treatment.

We can show the world the mental health community isn't one to fear, but to embrace, understand, and celebrate, giving confidence and power to previously marginalized and isolated individuals. We can break through the barriers of prejudice and judgment by educating the public on facts of mental illness.

Maybe I am a realist; I have an illness and it is something I maintain and work on every day in recovery. I don't want to minimize the struggle I have had or how far I have come.

But I'm also an optimist, in that I can imagine a future when those who are like me, who have seen how a life free from the discrimination of mental illness can be liberating. And focusing on people's actions--not their opinions--is the way to effect the most positive, lasting and meaningful change.

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