World Mental Health Day helps, but doesn’t heal, stigma

By: Jonathan Shead | C&G Newspapers | Published October 7, 2019

On the 27th anniversary of World Mental Health Day Oct. 10, the question arises: Have the years of increased awareness, support, services and dialogue helped break down stigma?

“I think it’s obviously moving in the right direction. You look at the amount of communication about it, in social media groups, and (there are) a lot of different things out there that are making this more and more a topic people talk about,” said Josh Spears, a mental health motivational speaker from Plymouth and the author of “Personal Revelations.”

“The challenge with that is the data and numbers of if it’s working. They don’t really line up with that. … The numbers are still going in the wrong direction,” he said.

According to a 2013 national study conducted after the Sandy Hook school shooting published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 61% of people surveyed were still unwilling to have someone diagnosed with a mental illness as a neighbor, and 71% were unwilling to work closely with someone with a mental illness. Nearly half of the respondents also believed people with mental illnesses were more dangerous than the general public.

Leon Judd, the president of the National Alliance on Mental Health’s metro Detroit office, believes part of this public perception comes from the way the media covers mental health.

“They talk about the horrific things that’ve happened, but they don’t talk about the fact that people with a mental health condition are typically going to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence,” he said. “The statistics on that are pretty clear.”

Despite an increased awareness and understanding of mental health, the stigma has seemingly been stagnant.

“We have a perception, a lot of us do, (that) we’re talking about it on social media, we’re talking about it on the news, there’s celebrities talking about it. … We’re talking about it more so the stigma isn’t there, but if you dig down into it, that stigma is still there,” Spears said. “It’s not one of those things where you can let your foot off the gas and think it’s fixed because it’s more openly talked about. It’s one of those things where we have to keep pushing it, keep opening doors, and keep exposing the fact that it’s OK to talk about it.”

When it comes to World Mental Health Day, Judd believes the day itself promotes positive change and action, though it’s just a jumping-off point.

This year’s Mental Health Day theme is suicide prevention. Check out previous themes at https://wfmh.global/world-mental-health-day.

Judd said he sees a lot of action these days happening within the workplace, with employers using the day to raise awareness and bring in speakers or programs that provide education on the topic.

“There isn’t a place you can go that you don’t have people that have a mental illness. You may not know it, but they may be struggling in silence, so I think (Mental Health Day) does prompt people to take some sort of positive action to make a change or difference.”

Judd also believes the number of celebrities joining in the dialogue and the sheer increase of resources, support services and education around the topic have helped push the needle forward, but the problem still lies in the fact that people have difficulty finding the right resources or may not attempt to get help because the stigma is still present.

“I think the generations coming up — the younger people — are more willing to talk about it than previous generations,” Judd said. “But I’m seeing something especially in the high school kids; there’s still a lot of stigma because they don’t want the stereotype that they have a mental illness put on them.”

A 2015 Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and other mental health organizations found that while 60% of young adults ages 18-25 believed seeing a mental health professional was a sign of strength, 46% said they couldn’t afford it and 33% believed it was inaccessible for most people.

Judd believes communities and organizations could improve upon letting people know where the resources are. He also believes being able to talk with peers who are or have been in similar situations is the best way to break down the stigma.

Spears challenges people to narrow World Mental Health Day to the individual level. 

“If each person reached out to someone on Mental Health Day, we’d have a whole bunch of people getting a whole bunch of help,” he said.

For people struggling with their mental health, Spears said there are always people willing to help.

“A lot of times we’re surrounded by people who care, but because of what we’re going through, we can’t see it. That’s where awareness, communication and openness really helps people,” he said. “That’s why keeping it out front is important.”

A list of resources, support groups and more can be found at https://namimetro.org/resources/information-links.