It may seem that trying to reduce the prejudice and discrimination that’s commonplace when talking about mental illness is a never-ending job. Because it is. But I believe that every single one of us needs to be responsible for helping to forward the conversation about mental illness. It can’t just be left to advocacy groups, government agencies, or professional associations.
To me, that means challenging friends and even family members if they say something that is stigmatizing to people with mental illness, or suggest that a person with mental illness is somehow “less than.”
After all, we wouldn’t let people insult those with a physical disability, diabetes, or cancer. Why would we be okay with someone insulting a person with an equally challenging behavioral condition?
Changing attitudes toward mental illness likely works best for most people one-on-one, in direct conversation with someone face-to-face. It doesn’t always work as well online, in a group or public setting, or through social media.
To start a conversation, I usually ask a question like, “Do you really believe it’s a choice to suffer from depression?” Then I try and explore where their attitude has come from, and gently suggest perhaps it’s not the way they believe it to be, based upon our understanding of mental illness informed by decades’ worth of research.
Everyone has their own different approach that works best for them and their personality. But you should have one.
It’s not always easy to have such a discussion. But then again, sometimes the best conversations come from difficult topics. I can’t say I’ve always changed people’s minds, but at least I’ve given them some food for thought.
Moving the needle of attitudes in society is often realized in these small baby steps, done a million times over every day throughout the world. We can all do our small part in our own community or tribe to help.
By John Grohol, Psy.D.