** In the previous post in Demystifying Therapy Part 1: Just. Do. It, Cristal Martinez Acosta, LPC talked briefly about stigma when it comes to mental health and treatment. She provided some tips on how to prepare and reframe seeking out therapy. For Part 2, Luis Cornejo, LMFT discusses more in detail how stigma keeps us from seeking therapy and what we can do to lower the impact of stigma for those seeking help.
How Stigma Keeps Us From Seeking Help
For many of us, starting something new can be terrifying. Therapy is no exception. For a great number of us, when we hear the word “therapy” we quickly jump to pre-conceived notions about what it means to go to therapy. These ideas are often based on things we’ve heard before from the media, our family, our social circles, or even in our education. Many of the words we tend to associate with therapy can include things like, “crazy”, “dysfunctional”, “shame”, “weak”, or “psycho”. Make no mistake, words are powerful. In the case of mental illness, words reinforce the stigmathat keeps people from seeking help. A research studyin England in 2007 found over 250 words that stigmatized and created negative attitudes towards people dealing with mental illness. In their conclusion, the researchers indicated that based on their findings they believed that stigma could be reduced by providing interventions that addressed lack of factual information on mental illness and reducing the strong negative reaction to mental illness. I want to acknowledge that this study was conducted in 2007 and it is now 2019.
Yet, as a mental health professional I can assure you that even though we are talking more about mental health & mental illness, the stigma is still strong in many communities. So why is stigma still so prevalent when it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illnesseach year? That is about 18.5% of the population or 43.8 million people. Of that number 9.8 million are adults over the age of 18. That’s a really high number! Even more important to note is the fact that mental illness does not discriminate! Mental illness can impact anyone regardless of gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, religion, culture, etc. This means anyone, anywhere, and at any time can struggle with a mental illness during their lifetime. Yet, a large number of people never seek treatment. This is due to the stigma associated with finding help and society’s attitudes towards those who deal with mental illness. So how do we start to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness?
“Mental illness can impact anyone”
As the research article I mentioned above stated, in order to reduce stigma, there needs to be factual information about mental illness. Let’s start with some basics about what mental health is and how it differs from mental illness. When we talk about mental health we are simply talking about our cognitive, emotional, and behavioral well-being. Basically, how we think, feel, and behave in our everyday interactions in the world. Mental health is actually similar to physical health and many people feel strongly that they go hand in hand. Most of the time when we consider ourselves healthy we are most likely referring to the fact that we lack any physical illness. Yet, mental health is also a crucial area to consider when assessing our overall health. It’s important to distinguish mental health from another commonly used term, mental illness. Many of you have probably heard these words used interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing. When we talk about mental illness, we are talking about a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental disorder that is causing us impairment. This means we are having trouble functioning to our best capacity and are experiencing symptoms.
Language is important and the more we learn about mental health, the more we reframe our attitudes of mental health and mental illness. For example, I recently began to notice a lot more emphasis on and advocacy for the use of mental health challenges rather than mental illness. My personal view is that both of these terms are relevant to discussions about mental health. Both of these phrases are representative of the information I mentioned above about distinguishing mental health and mental illness. We all have mental health, but not all of us have a mental illness, yet during our lifetime we will experience mental health challenges. Regardless of where you stand, the emphasis should be placed on destigmatizing misconceptions of these words so that people can seek support.
Does This Mean Therapy Is Only for People with a Mental Illness?
No. Therapy is for anyone who is looking for support, as well as ways to improve their mental health. As humans we go through many transitions, challenges, life changes, unplanned situations, catastrophes, etc. that impact our well-being/mental health. Therapy can help people learn skills to navigate through these challenges. With that said, let me clarify another misconception. Therapy is not a “cure” and therapists don’t “fix” people. They provide a space for people who are dealing with difficult situations so that they can get the support they need. The fundamental principle in therapy is that as human beings we have potential. We can grow and live in a way that brings about happiness and fulfillment. Of course, people struggling with mental illness benefit greatly from care whether that be medication, talk therapy, cultural healing practices, or group support, but so do people who are dealing with loss, divorce, relocation, family issues, and other challenges. Basically, anyone who needs support can benefit from therapy, not just those struggling with mental illness.
It’s not easy to challenge the many misconceptions about therapy, mental health, mental illness, mental health challenges, medication… But it starts with us acknowledging that we are human, we go through things, and we all need support. Once we accept that then we can begin to open up to the idea of getting help and supporting others who need help. So, if you or someone you know is struggling or having a hard time, look for support. There are so many hotlines, community centers, therapists who offer pro-bono or sliding scale services, and guess what? There’s even apps for that (we will be covering the controversy and praise for mental health apps in a future post).
Cover Photo by MMPR on Unsplash
Photo by Spencer Dahl on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Goldberg on Unsplash