Vital Signs: Everyone can take steps to help reduce stigma surrounding mental illness
Rebecca Kendall

Mental health problems are surprisingly common. Did you know that, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), each year, one in five adults will experience some kind of mental health issue? Studies at SAMHSA show that people with mental health problems get better and many recover completely, but how we talk in general about mental health affects the road to recovery.

One major barrier to recovery is stigma — the veil of shame and blame that surrounds mental health problems. According to experts, this “fear” of mental health problems is a major problem in itself.
“Stigma gets in the way of treatment and recovery,” said Elizabeth Irvin, co-chair of the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition and executive director of The Women’s Initiative. “Stigma makes it hard to find a job and a place to live. It keeps people from getting the treatment they need. The language that we use when we talk about mental health can have enormous impact on the way people facing these difficulties and their friends and families respond to the challenges.”

When it comes to jobs and housing, laws protect people with mental health needs. But there are also some important steps that anyone can take to counter stigma:

» Share the facts about mental health problems and about people with these problems. Speak up if you hear or read something that isn’t true.

» Treat people with mental health needs with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else.

» Don’t label people with mental health problems by using terms like “crazy,” “wacko,” “schizo,” “loony,” “psycho” or “nuts.”

» Don’t label people by their illness. Instead of saying “She’s a schizophrenic,” say, “She has schizophrenia.”

» Support people with mental health needs by helping to develop community resources.

» Teach children about mental health. Help them see that these problems are like any other illness and can be treated.

The Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition is a coalition comprised of more than 20 non-profit and public-sector organizations with a mission of collaborating to promote behavioral health and wellness through planning, advocacy and access to effective service delivery for our region. As part of its advocacy efforts, the Coalition is dedicated to dispelling myths and stigma about mental health and promoting messages that encourage people to talk about mental health, which affects so many people.

In conjunction with the Virginia Festival of the Book, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and The Big Read, the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition’s member organizations will work together to continue raising awareness about mental health. Activities include:

» On Our Own, a peer support organization for people with mental health challenges, is hosting an art exhibition at Central Library.

» The Women’s Initiative hosts Challenge into Change: Storytelling as Healing from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Jefferson School, featuring essay contestants celebrating the power of storytelling as a way towards healing and empowerment.

» From 2 to 3:30 p.m. Friday, join Mental Health America, Region 10 Community Service Board, On Our Own and NAMI for Hope and Criticism in the Practice of Mental Health with writer Zack Bonnie. Bonnie will discuss personal experiences and research in mental health at Central Library.

» Go to Northside Library from 3 to 4:30 p.m. March 25 to learn more about state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’ efforts to improve mental health care in Virginia.

For more about these events, please go to or and click on the Big Read event brochure. For more about the Mental Health and Wellness Coalition, please go

Rebecca Kendall is Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition coordinator.

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