Let’s Cure the Social Virus Known as Stigma

By Mary Giliberti, J.D. | May. 02, 2018

 

If you were dealing with an illness that made everyday life a constant struggle, would you ask for help—or stay silent?

The answer seems so simple. Yet for the 60 million Americans living with mental health conditions and their loved ones, this question reflects a very real dilemma. Virtually every day, they experience biases that make it hard for them to trust anyone with the truth about their lives and find the caring, integrated support they need.

They hear disparaging things people say in casual conversation about those they dismiss as “crazy” or “mentally defective.”

They notice how often mental illness is described as a character flaw, something that sufferers could readily fix if they would just “snap out of it.”

They may hear harsh whispers in the workplace when a colleague reveals she’s dealing with depression or anxiety or shudder when a friend says that someone she knows must be “mentally ill” to believe what she believes.

These are just a few examples of how stigma can infect our thinking, our actions and our collective response to those with mental health conditions. This May, during Mental Health Month, NAMI is taking powerful aim at these issues through our #CureStigma campaign.

#CureStigma reflects our view that stigma is a social virus. A virus that spreads when we reinforce the negative attitudes that shame and isolate those with mental health conditions.

Often, we’re unaware of what we’re doing when we pass stigma along. Our words and actions come from everything we’ve heard about mental illness from childhood on. But we need to realize that stigma hurts people. It attacks their humanity, their pride and their potential. At its worst, it causes us to devalue people, denying them the care and attention they would receive if they were dealing with any other medical issue. Stigma has the power to damage lives—and take lives.

These harsh realities may frustrate and anger us, especially when they create painful barriers for the people we love and care about. But in a time when our society is more focused than ever on ending bias in all its harmful forms, we see real reasons for hope. #CureStigma is based on the belief that mindful action and open conversation can stop this virus in its tracks.

Our new campaign builds on NAMI’s successful #StigmaFree initiative. It begins with public service announcements by NAMI ambassadors, inviting all of us to take a brief online quiz that tests our thinking for stigmatizing beliefs. Everyone who takes the quiz will receive a custom stigma-fighting pledge to share via social media.

After taking the pledge, participants will get a pack of emojis they can use in text messages and other digital communications. These warm, expressive messages are a great way to show understanding and support for those with mental health conditions.

I hope you will head over to CureStigma.org to check out the campaign and share it with your friends, neighbors, family members and colleagues. I especially hope you won’t be afraid to take the quiz yourself.

Because you’re reading this blog, I know you care deeply about the well-being of those with mental health conditions. As a committed ally, you may not think of yourself as a carrier of the stigma virus. But since stigma is all around us—interwoven with our society’s thinking, actions, laws and institutions—we may suffer from its effects more than we realize. Even the most devoted advocate can have self-stigmatizing thoughts from time to time.

This is why #CureStigma matters so much. This campaign will give you new ways to think about stigma’s impact on your own life while engaging others who may need help getting past their own biases. When you share the emojis, you will be passing along the kindness and support that are stigma’s most powerful antidote.

Old beliefs die hard. There’s no doubt about it. But, as we’ve proven over and over again, our voices and actions can inspire healthful change. Together, we can be the compassionate cure that ends this virus for good.

 

Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.

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