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  • Writer's pictureSam Taylor Foundation Team

End the Stigma - Mental Health

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

When I started working in a K-8 school in 2013, we had a handful of middle schoolers we knew to be “dealing with mental illness.” It was spoken in whispers and met with a rapid nod of acknowledgment. Every meeting on that child’s behalf took place behind closed doors and was held in the strictest confidence. Of course. We were honoring the privacy of the family dealing with this vaguely named condition. The role of the school was isolated to the single staff member assigned to this out-of-the-norm event. Reflecting on those years and those few families that came out, so to speak, with the truth of their struggle, I realize how much we contributed to the stigma. How complicit we were in reinforcing the message of shame. We felt compassion and kept our distance. I dare say, we judged the poor family for their unique and unfortunate problems.

However, I’m not sure where the notion of uniqueness comes from when one in five teens has a diagnosed mental illness. But even if I didn’t know those statistics, mental illness and its symptoms were present in my own middle school years. My sister attempted suicide and my family never spoke of it. My classmate’s “cancer treatment absence,” seemed strange when she returned with bandages on her badly scarred wrists.That was the eighties, an era guilty of all sorts of sins. But I wonder how the decades since then that have brought us the internet, texting, and on-demand, everything has somehow stayed as stubbornly silent about mental health.

In fact, it is worth noting that beyond staying silent society has institutionalized the stigma and in doing so justified discrimination against those with mental illness. Large-scale decisions about housing and hiring people with mental illness consistently reinforce the idea that there is no country, culture, or society where “people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness."

What a devastating truth for those of us who suffer from the equivalent of diabetes or heart disease. We suffer from a health condition and though it’s treatable and not our fault, we pay a price. Whether at the institutional level or among the general public misconceptions and moral judgments ensure the stigma is pervasive. Self-stigma including internalized shame is yet another avenue for those who struggle with mental illness to sabotage their own healing. How do you convince yourself that you are worthy of help and treatment when the world, internally and externally, reinforces the message that your condition is shameful?

The average time between the onset of mental health symptoms and treatment is eleven years. Eleven years of coping in silence. Eleven years of hiding and suffering. This is a delay that would be unacceptable for most medical diagnoses. Is it a stigma that prevents seeking treatment?

By the time I stopped working at the school last year, mental health issues were no longer evident in only middle school. The elementary kids were also presenting with symptoms. Families were more open about needing help and the school was actively instituting wellness programs to shine a light on the importance of treating mental health. It is a start. It is essential to address the stigma and begin transitioning mental health out of the shadow of shame and into the mainstream medical world. There are great programs and agencies out there working to dispel myths and deepen understanding of mental illness. It’s time to join the movement and overcome the isolation and secrecy that exacerbate mental illness. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests we begin with a pledge to be advocates for change.

"I promise to change my behavior to support everyone affected by mental health conditions. I will listen more and judge less. I won’t use harmful words that prevent people from seeking help. I will be an ally to friends, family, and coworkers." - NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness

-Sam Taylor Foundation Board Member

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