Conversations Can Help Reduce Stigma Around Mental Health
By Amrita Bhowmick, MBA, MPH
Chief Community Officer – Health Union
July 22, 2019
Dealing with mental and emotional health, whether it’s an officially diagnosed mental health condition like anxiety or managing stress about a specific situation, can be an isolating endeavor. Wrapped up in one’s own mind, struggles with mental health are often invisible. Explaining one’s emotional challenges to others, especially in the midst of them, can feel impossible.
Making matters worse, mental health concerns remain highly stigmatized. Despite a boost in awareness due to initiatives like Mental Health Month, there is still a misperception that feeling depressed or stressed is not a serious problem or is even a false one. The idea that it is “all in your head” leads to disempowerment and individuals not accessing the support they need and deserve.
It’s important to identify that mental health isn’t a catch-all. The notion of dealing with mental health concerns represents a wide spectrum, from having an official mental health diagnosis to dealing with family-related issues to experiencing a traumatic event.
No two people experience their emotional and mental health the exact same way, and wellness looks different for everyone. Additionally, mental health symptoms are often one element of something larger, such as managing a chronic health condition or coping with grief.
So while the remedy to individual mental and emotional health issues and the ever-present stigma is not simple, an important step in the right direction is having open and honest conversations about mental health. When we start having these conversations, we remove the shame and provide a space for empathy and connection. Chipping away at the stigma – one conversation or story at a time – can let others know it is OK to ask for help.
Healthcare professionals, if they are open to mental health discussions, are another crucial resource. By opening up to your peers, you may begin to see your mental health as worthy of HCP attention. A receptive HCP can then connect you to the specific mental health professionals that might benefit you. Importantly, HCP participation can also help catch mental health challenges at an earlier stage, before they have a chance to get worse.
Beginning mental health conversations with peers can be difficult, and an online space can reduce the risk of social stigma. Online health communities – especially ones that are well-managed, prioritize patient needs and perspectives and focus on education, support and validation – can provide excellent resources for people with mental health concerns. They are available 24/7 and offer opportunities to engage at a person’s preferred pace.
At Health Union, via a growing portfolio of chronic condition-specific online health communities and the annual patient-reported surveys conducted for each of those communities, we see firsthand the effects that these conditions have on mental and emotional health and well-being – and vice-versa.
In fact, in a 2017 mental health-specific survey we conducted of more than 3,200 people living with chronic health concerns, nearly 90% of respondents said their physical health had either “some” or “extreme” negative impact on their mental health. Two-thirds of respondents were formally diagnosed with a mental health condition – depression, stress and anxiety chief among them – while nearly 98% said they have ever experienced symptoms commonly associated with an emotional or mental health condition.
The takeaway is that many people experience challenges with emotional and mental health, and you are not alone. Although they might not have the exact same feelings or pressures, there are other people out there with shared experiences who – like you – could be looking for information, validation and connection. Having an open and honest conversation will go a long way toward securing the resources and support you need, while also little-by-little reducing the stigma around mental and emotional health and well-being.
If you are coping with mental and emotional health issues, it’s important to become familiar with the free resources available for support. Contact 1–800–273–TALK (8255) or the Live Online Chat for 24/7 support. To get general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, contact SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1–877–SAMHSA7 (1–877–726–4727).