As much as we try to deny it, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health. There are treatments, support groups, countless help articles and even discussions that encourage acceptance and love for patients of mental health disorders. Even with all of these tools, the stigma is still there, alive and kicking.
What does stigma even mean, though? This word seems to be thrown around too liberally these days, so it’s about time we break it down.
“Stigma” is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” In general, when we talk about someone with a mental health disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, we stand strong in the belief that they deserve as much love, care and equality as a mentally healthy person. When we meet them in person, however, there seems to be a contrast between words and actions. Labels such as “crazy,” “unstable,” “unpredictable,” “dangerous” and “strange” get thrown around. People become uncomfortable around them. They avoid eye contact. They gossip and spread exaggerated or even false rumors. They don’t really understand. Mainstream media has convinced us that having a mental disorder equates to being something we should be afraid of. When this irrational fear is perpetuated, everyone loses.
While it’s true that some patients with mental illness fit the above profiles, these words should in no way reflect the entire community. They are people, first and foremost, and should be treated as such. It can be difficult to do this when you don’t understand what they’re going through. Although you’ll never understand their perspective due to not actually being in their shoes, you can certainly try. The first step is to admit there’s a lot to learn. It’s easy to get frustrated at someone who functions differently than you, and much easier when you haven’t found a way to communicate with them. Consider how you would react if someone told you they had a physical illness (such as cancer) or a disability, and react accordingly. You probably wouldn’t consider a cancer patient as an outsider.
Understand that listening is much more important than talking or giving them advice. Like everyone else, they just need to be heard. They need to know you care enough to sit and listen to them without judgment. They need support and respect, not paranoia and suspicion. There’s enough of that going on in their inner world; they don’t need it from us too
Talk to them. Ask them what you can do to help them. Go into a conversation with the assumption that it will end well. If you don’t think they’re getting the professional help they need, be sure to let them know there are resources available. You can even offer to assist them with contacting these resources. Let them know their lives are important to you, and you want to support them any way you can.
As important as it is to be there for them, your own health is no less important. It can be emotionally draining at times, and you should always keep in mind your own boundaries and mental wellness. The Counseling Center on campus offers free sessions during the school year, and they encourage all students to seek help if they need it.