How Will You Resist Stigma in 2019?

It’s a new year, and with it comes resolution season. While it’s great to set goals and intentions for our own wellness, can we also resolve to increase our efforts to join with others to defeat mental health stigma in this new year?

In  2018 we saw great strides in celebrities and everyday people alike breaking the silence and going public with their challenges with mental health and substance use.  We still have so far to go to create a society where stigma is non-existent, and where people who need support can easily access it. Some troubling statistics: in 2018, the CDC announced that suicide rates had risen by 30% in half of U.S. states since 1999. Recent data indicate the life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped due to the rising number of overdose deaths and other deaths of despair.

These findings may produce cynicism or hopelessness and they can also fuel for us to redouble our focus to change the conditions that make these tragedies possible. Helping to create a stigma-free world is a resolution that everyone can make and keep, through our individual efforts in our everyday lives. Here are some thoughts for how to that:

1. Respectfully call out stigmatizing language in everyday conversation. If you hear people in your life using terms like “crazy,” “OCD” or “bipolar” in a disparaging way, using mental health-related terms to talk about politicians they don’t like, or using terms that are not person-first such as “the mentally ill,” or “addicts,” consider starting a conversation about why this use of language can be hurtful (even if it was not the speaker’s intent). Encourage people to simply describe a behavior rather than ascribe a diagnosis to it. Demonstrate and use person-first language, such as “person with or living with” a diagnosis or condition.

2. Speak out against dehumanizing media depictions of people living with behavioral health conditions. So much stigma comes from media depictions of persons with mental health or substance use conditions as dangerous, out of control, and scary. If you see a stigmatizing portrayal in the media or in entertainment, get some friends together and make some noise. Use social media as a way to raise awareness and change the conversation. Conversely, if you observe a balanced and humanizing media representation of someone living with a behavioral health condition, send a Tweet or public message of appreciation to the media outlet.

3. Practice being an ally to yourself and others. Often people who are in distress may fail to reach out because of past experiences of feeling judged or shamed for doing so. If you have a friend or a loved one who’s struggling, let them know that you are there to listen with a nonjudgmental ear. See if you can sit with your discomfort and the desire to “fix,” and just be there. According to neuro-scientific findings, the quality of our presence itself can be even more healing than the words we say. Check out this podcast on the value of nonverbal communication in creating interpersonal safety. And it’s important to remember that we can offer that same compassionate and nonjudgmental presence towards our own suffering!

There are just some ideas for how you can use the motivational energy of the New Year to create your own goals and set intentions for defeating stigma in 2019. The sky is the limit, so use your creativity and your strengths in the service of what you believe in!

Resources for further exploration: