Stigmas: What are they? How do we deal with them?

This topic is something that I’ve gradually noticed over the years in the workplace. It never dawned on me that I would be treated differently because I had mental illnesses. It never passed through my mind that I would be shamed or even terminated over my mental illnesses, either. After taking a step back and watching how other people were affected by their mental illnesses in the workplace, I realized there was a major problem in society, the American workplace, and how people viewed others with mental illnesses.

Let’s start with a few of my own personal experiences. In 2013, I was a new mother. I had scored my first ‘professional’ job that had potential to turn into a lifelong career. I also was professionally diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), MDD (major depressive disorder), and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). I was seeing a therapist once a week and a psychiatrist once a month. I enjoyed this job thoroughly. I loved processing deposits and creating relationships with my customers, but there was one thing that I didn’t like about the job: the security personnel. I was 18 years old, married with a newborn, and I didn’t feel safe being at this bank with almost no one else there to supervise the behaviors that went on. There were a few instances where this security guard (who was also local law enforcement) would come to the teller line and chat me up. You’d think it was harmless conversation but it wasn’t. The topics that he would bring up would be crossing the line, absolutely. It got to the point where it would trigger my anxiety, and I would crumble right there at work. I reported it, then a week later, I was called into my supervisor’s office to be told that I shouldn’t be sexually enticing. I left her office feeling defeated, deciding to ignore the security guard from that moment on unless it was an emergency situation. I ended up submitted a two-weeks notice but was eventually terminated before my two-weeks over what they quoted as “personality differences”.
Fast forward six years later: I’m working at a local diner chain in the state of Oklahoma. I’m older, obviously, more in touch with my emotions. I was labeled as ‘very emotional’ because I had a tendency to cry when under pressure. It didn’t affect my ability to work, I could easily work through my emotions but my ’emotional outbursts’ were always blown out of proportion. I was overlooked for the supervisor position because I was “too emotional”, but when it came down to cleaning, opening, closing the restaurant: I was the one who led everyone to completion every time. The label followed me up to a year and a half later when I had listed them as a reference for another job, and the reference they gave was “she’s a great worker. She’s just too emotional.” Like it was a bad thing that I was passionate about what I do. Like it’s a bad thing to show your emotions. I felt like I was unfairly judged all because I was taught not to hide your emotions. Every therapist I’ve had would say that. So why is it such a bad thing to have mental illnesses?

This is a growing problem with society. We have “boomers” who believe that self-care is a joke and that it’s selfish to want to be in a good headspace in order to work efficiently. I can already imagine them: “We didn’t get self-care days when we worked back then. They just told us to dry it up and stop crying about it.” Good for you gramps, things are different these days. The way that humans function in this day and age is not the same as it was in the 1950s or even the early 2000s. It is 2021- and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic (COVID), people are dying everyday, the war in Afghanistan just ended after 20 YEARS. People need to start focusing on mental health, and being more accepting of it because it’s a growing habit.

More than half of the people with mental illnesses choose not to receive help for their mental illnesses. Why? Because of fear of being shamed, fear of losing their jobs, and fear of losing their livelihood. People are scared to face discrimination.

Discrimination against people with mental illness can be subtle or obvious. It can be as subtle as forcing someone to go home because they had a breakdown and started crying, or it can be as obvious as terminating someone because ‘their mental illness prohibits them from being able to fulfill their duties’ after just learning that this employee suffers from PTSD from a tour they served. The people who are treated differently over their mental illnesses are the people forced out of the workforce and into collecting disability checks because their reputation had been tarnished from losing jobs to their mental illnesses.

A 2016 study on stigmas concluded “there is no country, society, or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness.” If that isn’t one of the saddest things you’ve read, then I don’t know what is. We have to change something, and we have to stick with it.

You might be wondering what types of stigmas we need to look out for or what we need to pay attention to. Keep reading!

There are three types of stigmas to look out for: public, self, and institutional. Public stigmas reflect negative attitudes that others have about mental illness. Self stigmas reflect negative attitudes, internalized shame, about their own mental illness. Institutional stigmas are more systemic, involving policies of government or private organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. Now, you might be wondering “isn’t that last one illegal? Don’t we have like equal opportunities?”. Yeah, we do, but they always find loopholes.

Here are some examples of what stereotypes and prejudices look like:

Public: “People with mental illness are dangerous, incompetent, to blame for their disorder, unpredictable…”

Self: “I’m dangerous, incompetent, to blame…”

Institutional: “Stereotypes are embodied in laws and other institutions.”

Surely, we’ve heard that first one if you’ve ever been shamed for your depression or anxiety. Well, you’re a victim of prejudice, sadly. But wait, there’s still examples of discrimination to cover.

Public: “Therefore, employers may not hire them, landlords may not rent to them, the healthcare system may offer lower standard care.”

Self: These thoughts lead to lowered self-esteem and self-efficacy: “Why try? Someone like me is not worthy of good health.”

Institutional: Intended and unintended loss of opportunity.

This is completely unacceptable behavior, and we, as a society, cannot stand for this. We have to change this.

Here is a list of what we can do to change it:

  1. Talk openly about mental health, such as on social media. Make it known.
  2. Educate yourself and others by responding to misperceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
  3. Be conscious of language; remind people that words do matter.
  4. Encourage equality between physical and mental illness- draw comparisons to how they would treat someone with cancer or diabetes.
  5. Show compassion for those with mental illness, even yourself.
  6. Be honest about treatment. Normalize mental health treatment, just like other health care treatment.
  7. Let the media know when they are using stigmatizing language presenting stories of mental illness in a stigmatizing way.
  8. Choose empowerment over shame: “I will 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.”

By sticking together, we can make a change. It is time for us to pull together and stand up for everyone who deserves to live their life regardless of a mental illness.

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