In Crisis: 3 Ways To Reduce Mental Illness Stigma

Oct 29, 2014

Mobile Crisis Unit Clincian Beth Rumpel does a mental health evaluation with a woman in crisis to get her into a treatment program for a few days.
Credit Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman

Several people interviewed by the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio did not want to be named or quoted because of stigma surrounding mental illness. Shawna Ervin of Nampa believed the issue of mental illness in Idaho is important enough to share her story, despite concerns from a family member that doing so could hinder her job search. Shannon Guevara of Nampa did not seek treatment for decades for her bipolar disorder because of stigma around psychiatric disorders.

Stigma can keep an undiagnosed person from seeking treatment, and it can result in discrimination against people with mental illnesses, among other things.

What can you do to reduce stigma? Here are three important things:

Use different language. Words like “crazy,” “nuts,” “psycho” and “wacko” reinforce stereotypes and discrimination. One mother of a man with lifelong mental illness said she wishes Idahoans talked about schizophrenia and other mental diseases the same way they talk about diabetes.

Focus on the person, not the illness. Kelly Jennings, coordinator of the Ada County Mental Health Court, recommends a way to improve Idaho’s mental-health system that costs nothing and that everyone can do: “Talk about people, don’t define them by their diagnosis,” she said. “How? Use person-first language. Rather than saying ‘He’s schizophrenic,’ say ‘he’s a person living with schizophrenia.’

“The first phrase focuses on the illness and defines a medical condition, not a person. The second ... recognizes that a human, just like other humans, is living with a medical condition.

“It can be cumbersome, but it’s amazing how quickly focusing language more carefully supports the kind of change that makes people feel freer to ask for help and to identify themselves as someone living with a mental illness.”

Challenge perceptions in the workplace. The jobless rate among people with serious and persistent mental illnesses is 90 percent, higher than the 50 percent rate for people with physical or sensorial disabilities, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But employers who hired people with mental illness say those employees have better-than-average attendance and punctuality and that their motivation, work quality and job tenure is at least as good as other employees, the agency says.

"In Crisis" is a series about mental illness produced in collaboration between the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio.