According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 58 million American adults–that is about one in every five—are living with a mental illness.

While mental illness is widespread, unfortunately our reaction to mental illness often is marked by awkwardness, discomfort, and discrimination. This stigma creates a real problem.

The problem with stigma

Centuries ago, mentally ill people were treated like criminals — locked up, chained. They were feared and distrusted. People were reluctant to talk about their struggles for fear of being cut off from friends and family, or losing jobs.

We’ve come a long way since then, especially in the last couple of decades. People are more willing to talk about having bipolar disorder, or having depression or schizophrenia. Despite that, the stigma persists, and can prevent people from getting treatment. If individuals are not willing to share how they feel with family and friends, it can also lead to isolation and depression.

How to change perceptions and end the stigma

Every time someone with a mental illness is open with a friend or family member about what they are experiencing, it can help to increase the understanding of the many faces of mental illness.

People share in many ways, including social media, which can decrease their sense of isolation and help others see that they are not alone.

It’s also helpful when celebrities like Billie Eilish, Ryan Reynolds, Demi Lovato, or Catherine Zeta-Jones disclose their illness. It makes people realize that even a person who seems to have it all together can struggle with mental illness.

We all should speak up when we hear discriminatory or pejorative language such as “crazy,” “nuts,” or “off their rocker.” Suggest that the speaker compare this to how people who have cancer or ALS are treated. Few people would use demeaning language about those diseases; people who are mentally ill should get the same respect and consideration.

A little help from family and friends

There are things family and friends can do to help someone with mental illness.

  • Take notice. When you see someone struggling in daily life or you notice a recent behavior change, reach out. Ask him or her, “I’ve noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately—is there something I can do to help?” Be willing to meet them where they are and see what they are willing to accept.
  • Think before you speak. Avoid remarks that diminish the seriousness of mental illness. Even offhand comments such as “I’m so depressed,” when you feel a little down, or “I’m so schizzy today” can be hurtful to someone who does have that diagnosis.
  • Talk about it. When your loved one has let people know about his or her mental illness, be willing to talk about it with your friends. You don’t want it to become “the family secret,” as though it’s something to be ashamed of. Having a family member with mental health issues shouldn’t be any different from having a mother who has diabetes or a brother with prostate cancer. 
  • Be open. Treat people with mental illness and their family members with openness and empathy. Don’t assume they don’t want to talk about how it affects them.

It’s important to remember that mental illness is a disease that affects so many people. Shedding light on it will help dispel the stigma that surrounds it.

If you or a loved one needs help, call or text 988 for emergency mental health assistance. You can also call Lifespan's Psychiatry and Behavioral Health team at 401-606-0606 or visit our website for more information.

Heather Morse Hall, MD

Dr. Heather Morse Hall is a staff psychiatrist at Newport Hospital as well as clinical instructor of psychiatry and human behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.