Mental health: We can all do our part to eliminate stigma

By Cynthia Cunningham

Stig·ma:  /ˈstiɡmə/  noun
A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
Synonyms: shame, disgrace, dishonor, ignominy, opprobrium, humiliation, (bad) reputation

Can you imagine a world where you were shamed for having a diabetes?  Ostracized for having cancer? Can’t imagine this ever happening? Is this because you know that people would speak up and demand to be treated with compassion?  So why do we not treat mental illnesses the same? Michelle Obama said “At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country.  Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.”

Well, we have an estimated 26,884 people in Waco who are living with a mental health condition. Who is speaking up for them?  Hear any demands for compassion for them? No?  And why not?

The answer is Stigma.  That one thing that prevents people from taking control of these illnesses.  Stigma causes people to hide their illness and families to hide what is happening within their homes.

Those living with symptoms mental illness do not feel that they can safely speak openly about what is going on with their health.  They fear being judged.  Even shunned. So this leads them to do nothing about it.  They don’t seek treatment and suffer in silence.

Sometimes when things get out of control, they try to make things feel better by self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.  They just want to feel better.  And for short amount of time, they feel better.  However that high never lasts.  They must take more and more of the substance to reach that euphoric feeling.  Before they realize it, they are addicted to this vicious cycle.

Why would a person feel that their only choice to address their mental health condition is in this manner?  Stigma.  That fear of being treated poorly by those around them.  These are the lengths that some take to avoid being labeled.  They feel that there is something about them that is shameful.  No other health condition has this stigma attached to it.

Families experience this implied shame because of their loved ones health condition. They feel that they cannot talk about what is happening within their family.  They deal with this in silence.

How can they tell anyone what they are going through? Speaking up would allow everyone to know what is happening within the family.  Again, that feeling that something they are going through is disgraceful takes over. Even though they know they did nothing wrong and this is an illness.

But they are not alone.  The community does nothing to help eliminate this stigma.  In fact, they continue to fuel this humiliation by using mental health conditions as something to joke about.

For example, as I write this, our weather went from warm and sunny to cold and grey.  As a result, social media is filled with memes of “mother nature is bipolar” and the like.  When you actually think of this, it doesn’t even make sense.  Bipolar is a condition that is characterized by both manic and depressive episodes.  How can weather be depressed? Makes no sense.  It means that we are not using the correct words.  And by using the incorrect words we further that stigma of mental illness.

So what can you do to do your part to stop stigma?

See the person and not the illness!  Never identify a person by their illness.  Recognize the correct way to identify someone: “Suzie is my daughter” instead of “Suzie is my bipolar daughter.”  See the difference?  “Suzie” is a person, who does not deserve to be labeled by a health condition.  This is called person-first language.

Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness!  Yes, sometimes their behavior can be unusual but regardless what the media tells you, most people with mental health conditions are NOT violent.  In fact, they are often the victim of violent acts.

Don’t blame someone for their mental illness!  Just like no one would choose to have cancer, no one would choose to have a mental illness. Stop saying things like “snap out of it” or “you just need to get over it.”  Would you tell this to someone with a broken leg?  You cannot just turn an illness off!

Don’t use disrespectful language! “She is so bi-polar” Speaking like this, you are using negative language and offending people.  This is part of the problem and not a solution!

Be a Role Model!  You can show others how to stop this stigma by modeling proper language and behaviors associated with mental illness.  Teach them what you have learned.

We can all learn from former President Bill Clinton when he said “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shames all.”

So I’ll leave you with this: Speak a little kinder. Support those around you who are dealing with mental health conditions. Educate yourself about mental illnesses. Share your knowledge with others. We can all do our part to eliminate stigma in our community.

Cynthia Cunningham, a Wacoan since age 2, is the Executive Director for NAMI Waco.  She lives with her husband of 28 years, Bobby, and two spoiled dogs and one royal cat!  Her passion is educating others about mental health.  She can be contacted at:

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.


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