Here we are again, talking about another month dedicated to something, but this is one I simply couldn’t let pass by without addressing it. May is Mental Health Month, and it’s something near and dear to my heart. While this awareness campaign has been happening every May since 1949, this year’s theme of Life with a Mental Illness calls on individuals to share what life with a mental illness feels like for them and tagging their social media posts with #mentalillnessfeelslike. (You can read the collected posts on the Mental Health America site.) The goal is to break down negative attitudes and misperceptions surrounding mental illness and to let people suffering from mental illness know they’re not alone in their feelings or their symptoms. Breaking the silence is an important mission. All too often, mental health issues are hidden away, giving them the power to have a negative impact on our lives.
I read an article in The Atlantic a few years ago by a successful professional and Duke graduate who felt that impact heavily. Despite her passion for telling her story, she used a pen name because “The stigma that surrounds mental health is suffocating, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with most of my friends and family, and certainly not my boss or colleagues.” She talks about how the need to keep her mental illness a secret has impacted her professional life, as well as relationships with friends and family. It’s a sad and all-too-common story that, hopefully, is beginning to shift.
As a financial advisor, I’m very aware of another often hidden consequence of mental illness: financial distress. I’ve learned firsthand that, in many cases, high levels of debt and financial chaos are directly tied to mental health, with financial issues either resulting from or leading to mental health issues. I’m not alone in my findings. A 2011 study by a team of UK researchers found that “financial strain and debt are strong risk factors for mental-health problems.” A separate study in 2012 found that “adults in debt were three times more likely than those not in debt to have (common mental disorders).”
It’s easy to see the connection. Binging, which often involves spending, is one way to numb the feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression that can come with mental illness. “Retail therapy” is something people often joke about, but shopping binges are a very real problem for many people with mental health issues. If you’re depressed, shopping gives you a way to surround yourself with cheerful people and boost your endorphins with the pleasure of a new purchase. But when shopping becomes binging, it can result in skyrocketing debt—which causes more stress and, yes, more depression. It’s a vicious cycle, and the best way to break that cycle is awareness.
Clinical psychologist and mental health advocate David Susman offers these five steps to reduce stigma about mental illness:
1. Don’t label people who have a mental illness.
Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “she’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” All of this is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.
2. Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.
Sure, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes, such as the deranged killer or the weird co-worker depicted in the movies.
3. Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.
In a research study with British 14-year-olds, the teens came up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, and the majority were negative. These terms are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about using “diagnostic” terms to describe behavior, like “that’s my OCD” or “she’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, you quite likely may be offending someone and not be aware of it.
4. Don’t be insensitive or blame people with mental illness.
It would be silly to tell someone to just “buckle down” and “get over” cancer, and the same applies to mental illness. Also, don’t assume that someone is okay just because they look or act okay or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.
5. Be a role model.
Stigma is fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.
I would add one more to his list:
6. Don’t be afraid to share your experience with mental illness.
I’m proud of my daughter Jamie for sharing her story on Facebook as part of Mental Health Awareness Month. In her post, she shares her experience living with anxiety, OCD, and bi-polar disease, and writes, “There is nothing wrong with you, and there is nothing wrong with me. It’s a real issue probably facing more people than you will ever realize. Be proud like me that you were able to face your issues, confront them, talk to someone about them and treat them. We all deserve a normal life. We all have struggles. If yours is some kind of mental illness, don’t be ashamed. You are not alone. Don’t be afraid to share with others…”
While changing perceptions about mental health may not come easily, the shift is happening slowly but surely. My friend’s daughter Emma is another great example. In her junior year of high school, she was suffering from severe anxiety and depression. A star student, her condition got so bad that she had to withdraw from regular classes for a semester and continue through independent study. When she returned for her senior year, she agreed to talk about her experience in the school newspaper. The day the paper was distributed, Emma’s mother got an urgent call from a close friend. “Have you seen the paper?! Did you know she was doing this? Are you ok?” And while the friend’s reaction was full-blown alarm, when Emma got home from school, she shared a completely different experience. “It was great Mom,” she said. “So many people came up to me and thanked me for doing the interview…they thought they were the only ones at school who had an issue until I spoke out.”
Hopefully, Jamie and Emma’s generation will erase the stigma of mental illness. If they do succeed, I have no doubt we’ll all be better off for it—mentally, socially, and financially.