When you have a physical ailment, you seek the advice of your doctor. It’s the prudent thing to do. When you have a mental health issue, seeing a therapist would be equally prudent. In a perfect world, that would not raise eyebrows.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Besides their personal struggles, people with mental health problems also have to deal with other people’s perceptions of their problem—many of which are untrue.
“Unfortunately, a lot of what we see in the media—high-profile situations with tragic situations—pushes the stigma,” says Dr. Joshua Thomas, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Delaware. “The vast majority of people with mental illness pose no threat to anyone.”
According to experts, social stigmas about mental illness often translate into inaccurate stereotypes, such as:
- People with mental illness lack willpower.
- People with mental illness are a danger to others.
- People with mental illness have no control over their emotions.
- People with mental illness are fundamentally flawed.
- People with mental illness are antisocial.
These negative perceptions can result in some harmful effects, including:
- Reluctance to seek treatment
- Lack of support or understanding from friends, family, co-workers or others you may know
- Health insurance that doesn’t cover treatment or fear of using benefits
- Fewer occupational or educational opportunities or difficulty finding housing
- Harassment, bullying or physical violence
- The belief that the situation will never improve
May is mental health month. What better time to develop a new attitude toward therapy to prevent or decrease the social stigma and help people better understand mental illness and its treatment.
Here are some new ways to view therapy:
- Everybody can benefit from therapy. Let’s be honest, none of us has all the answers when life throws us a curve. “Sometimes we can’t always see what’s in front of us because we’re in it,” says Emily Vera, LCSW, assistant director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware. “So having that objective, highly trained person listen and interact with us can be really helpful.”
- Healthy people can and do seek therapy. Healthy people want to remain healthy. They take a proactive approach to their health, addressing minor problems before they become major ones. Thomas recommends viewing therapy as one part of an overall health maintenance plan.
- “Crazies” do not attend therapy. Generally, it’s the people who need therapy most who don’t seek treatment. They believe they have all the answers, are never wrong and are unwilling to see an issue from anyone else’s perspective. “If you see that you need help, it means you’re being reasonable,” says Vera. “That’s a sign of strength, not weakness.”
- Achieving personal growth. Although we may not realize it, most of us already take advantage of some form of self-improvement, whether it be coaching, a motivational speaker, a mentor or a self-help book. Therapy is just the same message delivered through a different medium. “It’s wonderful to have someone you can trust and can give you feedback,” says Thomas.
- Take pride in what you accomplished. We all want to live happy, fulfilling lives and communicating to others the difference therapy has made in your life does much to promote understanding. “That’s a really big part of erasing the stigma,” says Vera.