If you don’t know someone with a mental health problem, you’re simply not paying attention. All of us have friends and family members and colleagues who have been depressed, struggled with grief or an eating disorder or a learning problem, or have died by suicide.
Mental illness is treatable, and recovery is possible when education, family, peer and community supports are available and used, but stigma and discrimination against those living with mental illness is widespread and reaches into schools and universities, workplaces, housing, health care and media. It causes shame, prejudice and hopelessness, leaves many trying to manage the problem on their own, either suffering in silence, or masking the pain with drugs or alcohol.
This year TELL is campaigning to “shatter stigma” here in Japan, which lags behind North America, Europe, and especially Australia (a world leader) in awareness and tolerance of mental health issues.
How can we work together to overcome stigma?
As always, knowledge trumps ignorance. Many of us have learned about mental health issues when a friend or relative has had a problem. If we pass along our knowledge, and correct misapprehensions, we can improve things for the mentally ill. When you hear or see incorrect information in the media or at work or among friends, speak up. Challenge myths and stereotypes where you encounter them. Let people know how negative words and incorrect descriptions affect people with substance use and mental health problems, and perpetuate misunderstandings.
At the same time, we can be ambassadors for change by paying attention to the ways in which we speak and write. We can and should use accurate and sensitive words when talking about people with mental health and substance use problems.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, we can treat people who have substance abuse and mental health problems with dignity and respect. It takes courage to open up about mental health problems, but doing so may help the sufferer feel better about himself or herself, and better accepted. Think about how you’d like others to act toward you if you were in the same situation. If you have family members, friends or co-workers with substance abuse or mental health problems, support their choices and encourage their efforts to get well.
Together we can make a difference and change lives for the better.
A version of this piece appeared in Acumen, the magazine of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.