Mental health disorders affect one in four people, according to the World Health Organization. The National Council for Behavioral Health reports that 43.8 people in the United States experience a mental illness each year, and nearly half of all adults will struggle with mental health at some point during their lifetime. What’s even more shocking is that nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional.
Stigma, or negative attitudes and perceptions, often stops people from getting the support they need. One study found the perception of people with mental illness as dangerous has increased over time, despite evidence from the American Psychological Association that mental illness doesn’t contribute to violence. Unfortunately, many people also believe that mental illness is shameful and people with mental disorders are lazy.
When those with mental health disorders internalize society’s negative beliefs, the effects can be toxic, warns the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), since stigma contributes to greater distress, bullying, isolation and even suicide.
The Power of Compassion
The key to overcoming stigma is compassion. Compassion is defined by researcher Emma Seppala as an emotional response to suffering, which involves an authentic desire to help.
Compassion has many powerful physical and psychological benefits. For instance, meaningful connection with others has been shown to speed up recovery from disease, lengthen one’s lifespan, buffer against stress, and broaden one’s perspective.
In other words, when you act compassionately, you’re able to extend understanding and assistance to others — and experience the mood boost that comes with it. If you know or love someone with a mental disorder, here are ways you can treat them with greater compassion and do your part to dismantle mental health stigma.
1. Practice empathy. Simply validating a person’s struggles can be a healing experience. Don’t dismiss their feelings and instead focus on listening with your full attention. Swap sayings like “it could be worse,” “cheer up” or “look on the bright side” for more understanding ones such as “it sounds like what you’re going through is really difficult.” Empathy allows a person to feel seen and talk freely without fear of being judged.
2. Watch your words. Certain language can be offensive to people who live with mental health conditions, so be mindful not to label others. Strike words like “crazy,” “psycho,” “insane,” “disturbed” and “nuts” from your vocabulary when referring to mental health issues. Referring to someone as being “mentally ill” instead of as “a person living with a mental illness” can also have negative impacts. Encourage your loved one to identify themselves by other roles they play, such as spouse, friend or parent, rather than define themselves solely by their condition.
3. Understand the symptoms. Research symptoms of different disorders to gain a better understanding of what the person is going through. For example, a person with depression may struggle to get out of bed. Someone with obsessive compulsive disorder, on the other hand, may have trouble getting places on time because of their anxiety, not because they are irresponsible.
4. Promote outside support. One of the best ways you can foster compassion is by encouraging the person to seek treatment and support. Mental Health America points out that there are many options available, including psychotherapy, medication and complementary and alternative Medicine methods like meditation and yoga. NAMI suggests meeting regularly with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, versus relying on a primary care doctor. Support the person in following their treatment plan by offering rides to appointments, providing reminders to take medication or simply providing moral support.
5. Take care of yourself. As the friend or family member of someone with a mental disorder, it’s important to take care of yourself, too. Tend to your own emotional and mental well-being so that you can be there for your loved ones when they need you the most.