More and more people are seeking psychotherapy to improve their challenges with mental health issues. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of American households say at least one member of the family has sought mental health treatment in the past year. However, there are still tens of millions of people who need help and aren’t getting it.
We typically do not hesitate to seek and receive help when we are injured or sick because it hurts, and we want to feel better. On the other hand, when we are struggling with internal pain, whether it’s depression, anxiety, isolation, or other challenges, we are often hesitant in ways we wouldn’t be with a physical issue.
So how is it that psychotherapy has the power to change lives in extraordinary ways, yet many people who can afford to get it simply don’t?
A major deterrent to seeking help is the stigma that surrounds mental health and therapy. Even with the growing awareness of the benefits of counseling for individuals of all backgrounds and life circumstances, a negative perception continues to prevent people from giving counseling a chance (1).
Mental health stigma or the fear of it (2) is still a major roadblock for many to seeking mental health support. Individuals with mental health issues can sometimes be perceived by society as having a weak character, incapable of caring for themselves or others, and even being violent. Further, there are beliefs that those with mental health issues should be ostracized from the general community or blamed for their conditions.
Unfortunately, the reality is that stigma of mental illness is very real (1, 2). These negative attitudes and beliefs may lead some to treat others differently simply due to a person’s struggles. The most common hesitations I’ve come across with clients include, “does this mean I’m crazy, a failure, or weak?” or “what if someone finds out? What will they think of me?”
Some of the harmful effects of this negative perception can include:
- A lack of understanding by family, friends, colleagues, or others about what the person is going through
- Reduced opportunities for employment, education, or social activities
- Issues finding safe housing
- Bullying, harassment, or physical violence
- Limiting beliefs that one will never succeed at certain challenges or that one cannot improve their situation
This way of thinking is prevalent given our sociocultural conditioning. It discourages many people from seeking counseling even when they are in serious emotional, physical, or mental suffering. The question now becomes what can we do to reduce it? After all, we wouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor if we were very sick or snapped our s*** up at the gym.
If you want to transcend the cultural stigma, consider the following actions (3):
Educate yourself and others
- One of the first steps in receiving proper care for one’s emotional wellness is being informed (from reputable sources). Just like with prejudice and discrimination, stigmatization often stems from ignorance. It may be beneficial for someone who finds themselves discriminating against another or group to consider their own biases and educate themselves. Learning more about a certain group of individuals, impairment, illness, or any other issues can often help reduce one’s own stigma.
Be mindful of the language you use to refer to mental health issues
- In the model Neurolinguistic programing (NLP) language is utilized in a way to help change unwanted habits, limiting beliefs, improve relationships, and meet goals easily. Instead of saying, “I am depressed,” you can shift towards saying “I am experiencing depression” or “I’m having some challenges with depression.” This slight modification of language can help separate the person from the illness. If you or someone you know has a mental health diagnosis, remember it is only a part of the person. We are complex and multi-faceted beings, and we are not defined or limited by only one aspect of ourselves.
Have open dialogues about mental health
- By being transparent and sharing one’s own experience with mental health, one can better inform others and help them overcome their own stigma. Some can find a support group helpful if they don’t feel safe or at ease with disclosing information about their challenges and process in treatment with people from their personal lives.
Recognize that you are not “crazy”
- The stereotypes you have seen in pop culture are damaging in and of themselves. Let’s get this cleared up, starting counseling does not imply that you have a serious mental illness whatsoever. In fact, a large part of therapy participants seek help for significant changes, transitions, or challenges in their life that are making it difficult to cope, thus impairing mental well-being and daily functioning. Allow yourself to have an open mind and put aside these preconceived ideas.
Choose empowerment over shame
- It is so important to honor your own story! Also remember that the way you act and treat others can influence people’s attitudes towards you and mental illness in general. One of the most effective ways to reduce mental health stigma is social contact. Putting yourself out there to normalize the mental health challenges we all face to some degree is powerful. Acceptance is quite difficult, and it takes time, so be kind to yourself and others in this process.
Respectfully address others for perpetuating the stigma, whether it’s online or in person
- When we express our opinions in an assertive and confident manner, we can not only educate others and help reduce stigma, but also give courage to those facing similar challenges and encourage them to seek help. You also don’t have to fight every battle.
Start with yourself
- Change your own perspective to start eradicating the stigma associated with counseling. You will be able to talk more openly about your situation with others if you have a positive attitude on your own circumstance and therapy process. While you do not have to disclose the private information from your sessions, you also do not have to keep your participation in therapy a secret from your immediate family or close friends. Others will pick up on your sense of shame and question whether it is something to be ashamed of, which will only reinforce their preconceptions.
For more ways to reduce mental health stigma, check out this blog post from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Once you move past stigma, you can approach your mental health in a proactive manner. Counseling is a process that involves contemplation, examining insights, and making decisions; it is not a quick fix for the issues you are dealing with. Recognize that each person’s experience is unique and that your level of performance is not correlated with the number of sessions you attend. It does not imply that you are any less valuable than anyone else if you need more time in therapy. Life experiences and therapy experiences vary from person to person.
In the end, what you think about yourself is more significant than what other people may think. And your perceptions impact your experience. If your beliefs about counseling are negative, they might impact how effective it will be for you. Therapy is an effective tool for resolving problems and enhancing your life. Do not hinder your own progress in life by letting an unjustified stigma prevent you from taking the steps you need to take.
It truly does take a tremendous amount of courage to initiate the first phone call for help. Once you’ve made that move, you can expect a different sort of weight lifted off your shoulders (compared to racking the bar after a hard set of squats). It is an invaluable investment towards your emotional, physical, and mental health. Finally, you are not alone and remember, self-compassion and self-care are gifts we can benefit from if we are open to them on a daily basis.
Amanda Rizo, M.S., LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
How to get in contact with me:
Mental Health Resources
National Alliance of Mental Illness
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Eating Disorders Association
Choosing a therapist:
- Schomerus G, Schwahn C, Holzinger A, Corrigan PW, Grabe HJ, Carta MG, Angermeyer MC. Evolution of public attitudes about mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2012 Jun;125(6):440-52.
- Nearchou FA, Bird N, Costello A, Duggan S, Gilroy J, Long R, McHugh L, Hennessy E. Personal and perceived public mental-health stigma as predictors of help-seeking intentions in adolescents. J Adolesc. 2018 Jul;66:83-90.
- Gronholm PC, Henderson C, Deb T, Thornicroft G. Interventions to reduce discrimination and stigma: the state of the art. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017 Mar;52(3):249-258.