“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”
– John Kabot Zinn
When I was a child, each fall my grandfather would drive to the state line where the farmlands stretched out in beautiful expansiveness. We would purchase bushels of corn and huge sacks of green beans right out of the back of a farmer’s old green pickup truck. Back at their home I would sit on the front or back porch with my Grandma and snap beans together for hours. We would talk and talk. I have no recollection of the content of the conversations but I can remember everything about the feeling of those moments.
Fast forward 30 or so years and I can hardly remember a time where I sat for hours and just talked with my loved ones. Long gone are the days where sweet tea, a front porch swing and warm sunny days were all I needed to feel completely alive. In today’s world of instant electronic gratification, endless entertainment and extreme connectedness there seems to be a black hole of real human connection.
In the words of Dr. Rahul Medra of Metavist Health, we are in the midst of a crisis of loneliness. The electronic connections we have such ready access to do not provide the same authentic human connection that we need to maintain optimal mental health.
Mental health is rising at an alarming rate. The CDC reports suicide to be the second leading cause of death of those between 17 – 24 years old and the rate has tripled between 1999 – 20141. Harassment and bullying have been linked to 75% of school shootings.
Despite this real problem lingering under our noses, as a society we are trapped by stigma. The dictionary definition of stigma reads, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person”. Disgrace…what a troubling word. In Hillsborough County Schools, when a child is baker acted they are lead away in handcuffs via a marked police car. When did mental health alone become a crime? How does this traumatization help to heal our most vulnerable youth?
In 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General labeled stigma as perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care; this stigma manifests particularly in a phenomenon known as social distancing, whereby people with mental issues are more isolated from others2. When we see a child with no hair or eyebrows we feel empathy. When we hear a child has mental health issues like depression and anxiety, we feel doubt, fear or even suspicion.
Although widespread, some still believe they are immune from mental health issues. Perhaps they are not looking at the economic view. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), mental illness represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world, costing $2.5 trillion in 2010; this burden is projected to cost $6 trillion by 2030 with two-thirds of these costs attributed to disability and loss of work. And yet shockingly, of the 450 million people worldwide who suffer from mental health conditions, the majority (60 percent) do not receive any form of care, with 90 percent of people in developing countries receiving no form of care3.
The National Alliance on Mental Health recently published an article by Laura Greenstein on 9 ways to combat mental illness stigma4. An excerpt is below:
Talk Openly About Mental Health
“I fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD on Facebook. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it for me.” – Angela Christie Roach Taylor
Educate Yourself and Others
“I take every opportunity to educate people and share my personal story and struggles with mental illness. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I over-hear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, or anything regarding a similar subject, I always try to use that as a learning opportunity and gently intervene and kindly express how this makes me feel, and how we need to stop this because it only adds to the stigma.” – Sara Bean
Be Conscious of Language
“I fight stigma by reminding people that their language matters. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives and in my experience; most people are willing to replace their usage of it with something else if I explain why their language is problematic.” – Helmi Henkin
Encourage Equality between Physical and Mental Illness
“I find that when people understand the true facts of what a mental illness is, being a disease, they think twice about making comments. I also remind them that they wouldn’t make fun of someone with diabetes, heart disease or cancer.” – Megan Dotson
Show Compassion for Those With Mental Illness
“I offer free hugs to people living outdoors, and sit right there and talk with them about their lives. I do this in public, and model compassion for others. Since so many of our homeless population are also struggling with mental illness, the simple act of showing affection can make their day but also remind passersby of something so easily forgotten: the humanity of those who are suffering.” – Rachel Wagner
Choose Empowerment Over Shame
“I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. To me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.” – Val Fletcher
Be Honest About Treatment
“I fight stigma by saying that I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. Why can people say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor without fear of being judged, but this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health professionals?” – Ysabel Garcia
Let The Media Know When They’re Being Stigmatizing
“If I watch a program on TV that has any negative comments, story lines or characters with a mental illness, I write to the broadcasting company and to the program itself. If Facebook has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, then I write back and fill them in on my son’s journey with schizoaffective disorder.” – Kathy Smith
Don’t Harbor Self-Stigma
“I fight stigma by not having stigma for myself—not hiding from this world in shame, but being a productive member of society. I volunteer at church, have friends, and I’m a peer mentor and a mom. I take my treatment seriously. I’m purpose driven and want to show others they can live a meaningful life even while battling [mental illness].” – Jamie Brown
It is perhaps unrealistic to believe any of us can live without our cell phones, Netflix or social media, but we can do one thing. We can recognize that these are tools for our convenience not replacements for the importance of real human connection. We might not all want to pick up the battle ax of advocacy for mental health issues but we can all reduce our own preconceptions. We can start each day with gratitude and spend a little less time in the virtual and a little more time focused on what is real. Let’s keep our focus on the small things in life, they make all the difference in the end.
1 Metavista Health Research
2 Friedman, M. (2014) The Stigma of Mental Health is Making Us Sicker. Psychology Today May 13.
3 Friedman, M. (2014) The Stigma of Mental Health is Making Us Sicker. Psychology Today May 13.
4 Greenstein, Laura (2017) 9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma. National Alliance on Mental Health. Oct. 11.