Talking Isn’t Enough to Break Mental Health Stigma
Talking isn’t enough to break mental health stigma, which I think may be a hard pill to swallow. I know how impactful conversation and general awareness efforts can be on an interpersonal level, and I don’t mean to say those things aren’t important. However, we need to understand that they’re not enough to break mental health stigma entirely, and here’s why.
Why Isn’t Talking Enough to Break Mental Health Stigma?
When we stop to take a look at the sheer volume of conversation and awareness efforts surrounding mental health and then the amount of stigma that still exists, I think it becomes more apparent that mental health stigma cannot be broken by talking alone. While these efforts help people see mental health struggles for what they truly are rather than what stigma portrays them as and should never be discounted, there are still so many societal structures that keep mental health stigma alive.
I don’t mean in terms of societal perception of mental health. Rather, I mean there are structures in place that either exist because of stigma or perpetuate stigma that we must dismantle. A report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada describes structural stigma as « inequities and injustices that are woven into the policies and practices of our institutional systems »1 and uses examples like mental health stigma in the healthcare system, in the workplace, education, criminal justice, and public participation to demonstrate these instances. The organization’s document « Mental Illness-Related Structural Stigma: The Downward Spiral of Systematic Exclusion Final Report »2 goes into detail.
The structural manifestation of mental health stigma cannot be broken by talking alone because of how ingrained it is in each of these areas. I recommend reading the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s document, and others like it, to truly get a sense of what structural stigma can look like. We need to take action to challenge those structures and demand they be replaced by ones that don’t reinforce mental health stigma.
Suggestions for Dismantling Structural Mental Health Stigma
Let’s be real, dismantling structures that keep mental health stigma in place can be daunting. It could mean taking on entire organizations or speaking to government bodies, to name a couple of examples. There’s often much more at stake because it’s a matter of proving not only how the change would prove beneficial for people, but also to the entire organization or body.
How can one individual hope to take that on, right? I’ve come up with a couple of suggestions.
- Start small. Small steps can lead to bigger results down the line. It can look like writing a letter to your local government, letting them know where you see stigma, what changes you think could be made, how the government body can help, and so forth. Changes don’t always start with a big leap.
- Enlist the help of mental health organizations. Local branches of mental health organizations may be most effective for local-level structural mental health stigma concerns. Local branches can also be a good way to approach the parent mental health organization if there’s larger-scale structural mental health stigma you’d like to take on.
There are probably many more ways to approach this, and I invite everyone to share their ideas. The importance of these kinds of actions is in recognizing that talking alone isn’t enough to break mental health stigma. When we look beyond the interpersonal sphere, we can begin to examine other ways stigma manifests, such as structural stigma, and begin addressing that as well so we can make sure we’re eradicating mental health stigma from all angles.
1, 2. Livingston, James D., Ph.D., Mental Illness-Related Structural Stigma: The Downward Spiral of Systematic Exclusion Final Report. Mental Health Commission of Canada, October 2013.