Guest column: Help erase stigma of mental health illness

May is Mental Health Month. This is perhaps one of the most important recognitions we have throughout the year because so many people suffer with mental illness. What’s worse is that so many other people suffer silently and are afraid to come forward and get help. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, but we still have a long way to go. This Mental Health Month, we can all help erase the stigma associated with mental illness. Here are some steps we can take.

Don’t judge

First and foremost, it is everyone’s responsibility to understand that people with mental illness are not weird, strange or different. Labeling them as such would be the same as telling a diabetic or cancer patient that he is weird or different because of his illness. People with psychiatric conditions don’t choose to suffer just as someone who suffers a stroke or heart attack doesn’t wish that for themselves. Mental illness is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, environment and genetics. The reality is conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and others can happen to anyone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year. Before you judge someone, remember that these people are your friends, neighbors, coworkers and even family. Mental illness may even affect you in the future.

Seeking help isn’t weakness

Mental illness is a real medical condition and therefore requires real treatment from a trained professional. In fact, without medication and/or therapy, these conditions will not improve and will actually get worse. Sadly, as we’ve seen with a number of celebrities over the last few years, not seeking treatment or improper treatment can lead to suicide.

If you know you are suffering with a mental illness or suspect that you might be, get help. You can start by talking to a spouse, friend or anyone you trust or feel safe with. You can make an appointment with a psychiatrist, psychologist, social work or mental health counselor. Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Getting help is a sign of strength and should never be seen or joked about that you are weak, overreacting or just need to get over it.

We all need to do more

The fact is, whether you are a mental health patient, know someone who is or are not at all impacted by mental illness, it is everyone’s responsibility to erase the stigma and bring awareness to mental illness. Being an ally is easy, even if you don’t understand or relate to the pain that someone who is suffering is feeling. A few ways you can do your part include:

  • Never talk down or belittle someone who is in recovery even if you don’t get it.
  • Be a safe person for someone who is struggling. Sometimes just having a person to talk to can make all the difference for patients.
  • Be encouraging, supportive, positive and uplifting.
  • Know when to give someone a push while recognizing when to back off.
  • Don’t go telling others if you know someone has a mental illness. Spreading rumors, lies and gossip is counterproductive, and besides, it’s nobody else’s business.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help.
  • Most important, if you suspect someone is suicidal, remember the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which is 1-800-273-8255.
  • Watch the words you use. Many of us say things like, “My OCD is kicking in today,” or “That’s just my ADHD.” Even if you don’t mean any harm, it can be a real confidence killer if someone who is legitimately suffering hears you.
  • One of the most important things to remember is that the road to recovery from mental illness has its ups and downs. There will be periods where someone is fine, and weeks later they can be struggling again.

This month as we recognize Mental Health Month, let’s all do our part to eliminate the stigma around mental illness. Understanding the real facts and being an advocate to those who are suffering is the best way to do this.

Vinay Saranga M.D. is a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.

Vinay Saranga M.D. is a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.