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Seven steps to reduce stigma around mental illness

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

When President John F. Kennedy spoke these insightful words at a Yale University commencement almost 60 years ago, he wasn’t speaking about mental health specifically, but he easily might have been. Just as he might have been speaking to all of us in 2020, not just to the class of 1962.

Myths and stigma around mental illness are some of the most persistent our society has faced and many of us unknowingly keep old misinformation and beliefs alive. Those beliefs keep people living in shame and fear instead of seeking help and support for their disease.

Psychologist and consultant Denny Morrison learned this lesson early in his career. In his 2013 TEDx talk, Morrison described believing many stigmatized descriptions of those with mental illness when he first began interning in the field as a young college student.

Experience taught him the truth, he told the TEDx Bloomington audience, that mental illness — an illness of the brain — should be perceived in the same way other physical illnesses are and which require treatment and understanding. Why do we feel freer to tell others we have heart disease or lung cancer, rather than to admit to having mental illness, Morrison wondered in his talk. After describing his own journey to educate himself, Morrison challenged his TED audience to change the old myths they held. “My challenge (to you) is to jump into the discomfort of thought,” he said, echoing Kennedy’s comments. “Challenge the assumptions that you have about mental illness… and let’s bring rationality back to this segment of health care.”

It’s a challenge Help and Hope Southcoast enthusiastically supports. Are you ready to take it? If so, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada has put together a list of seven steps to get you started.

Seven Things You Can Do to Reduce Stigma

  1. Know the facts. Educate yourself about mental illness including substance use disorders.

  2. Be aware of your attitudes and behavior. Examine your own judgmental thinking, reinforced by upbringing and society.

  3. Choose your words carefully. The way we speak can affect the attitudes of others.

  4. Educate others. Pass on facts and positive attitudes; challenge myths and stereotypes.

  5. Focus on the positive. Mental illness, including addictions, are only part of anyone's larger picture.

  6. Support people. Treat everyone with dignity and respect; offer support and encouragement.

  7. Include everyone. It's against the law to deny jobs or services to anyone with these health issues.

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