Words matter: How to end mental health & addiction stigma by changing the conversation

Words matter: Changing the conversation

By John Cummings - Contributing columnist

Several months ago, as I stood in a checkout line at a local box store, I heard a woman behind me bemoaning how long it was taking to get done.

“That girl can’t seem to ring people up very fast,” she blurted. “Probably a crazy or psycho, she’s so slow.”

Talk about a gut punch. You see, I have a family member who is in recovery from a serious anxiety disorder. For the longest time, she feared treatment. She worried that people would label her, just like that woman did the cashier.

I doubt the woman really knew what she was saying. More than likely she was regurgitating something she had heard somewhere in her life, perhaps countless times. She just said it because that is what she knew.

And that, my friends, is the reason that we have to change the conversation about mental health and addiction and end the stigma against them.

Stigma is defined as someone viewing another person in a negative way because of a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that they see as a disadvantage. Negative views of people who live with a mental illness or addiction are common – and we want to change that.

But to move beyond that, we all need to be in on the conversation. We must learn more about what stigma looks like, how it affects the person living with a mental illness or addiction, and how we can work to end the stigma and support people – those we know and those we don’t – who are in recovery or want to enter treatment.

When we use stigmatizing language, the person who may want to get treatment or at least get a diagnosis hears nothing supportive. Instead, they hear “You’re not worth it” or they may feel even more inadequate than they already do. They begin to think there is no hope, and they just have to keep it all to themselves.

That only adds fuel to the issues and feelings they have. While they stay quiet about what is happening in their lives, their illness may worsen. That in turn can lead to more troubling consequences, up to and including death by suicide.

So how do you end that stigma? Here are just a few ways:

1. Talk about mental health and addiction without shame. There is no better way to end the stigma than to open up to people and share your story if you live with a mental health or addiction disorder, or – in the case of someone who is hearing from that person – keep your mind open and empathize.

2. View a person with mental health or addiction concerns as a person first. Regardless of his or her diagnosis, the person living with a mental health or addiction disorder also has hopes and dreams just like you.

3. Know how common mental health conditions and addictions really are. We all go through anxious times or get depressed now and again. Imagine feeling those things ten times deeper! People can still function even if they are diagnosed with a mental illness – and you may not see any outward signs.

4. Be a change agent! Learn about mental health and addiction and share your knowledge with others.

The stigma of mental health and addiction will not end overnight, but when one or two people start talking more and learning more, the fear can melt away for more and more people, replaced by understanding and support.

We at MHRBWCC are thrilled to be part of a regional campaign that is aimed at helping do just that. To learn more, visit LetsTalkOhio.com for frequently asked questions and links to the participating area boards.

I wish we’d had this back when I heard that woman say the things that she did in that checkout line.

I hope she finds it now.

John Cummings is Deputy Director of Communications, Mental Health Recovery Board Serving Warren & Clinton Counties.

Words matter: Changing the conversation

By John Cummings

Contributing columnist