Stigma keeps people from reaching out

Matt Doll, PhD
Woman in window

As those of you familiar with “social media” may know, deciding how and what to share about ourselves is very important. The fact that we have a concern, and that we are either working on it or have successfully overcome it can be very helpful for other people to hear.

Respectful exchanges with others without vivid detail and over-dramatics seem to be a good benchmark. I have been told by the people I work with that one of the most helpful things I have said is admitting that even as a psychologist (supposedly knowing better), I am not a perfect parent, nor partner to my wife. Glad to be of service!

A professional level of self-disclosure can be helpful, but turning therapy into “Matt’s life events time” would not. If you are currently in treatment and do not feel safe or able to share at the time, that is more than OK. If, however, you are ready and comfortable in sharing your story, it does appear that a lot of good can come from the effort. Knowing that others share similar struggles helps us feel less isolated and different, and more likely to seek help when we need it.

This is true for physical, as well as mental difficulties. Sadly, we appear willing and able to share the intimate details of our digestive tract, but are often silent on the struggles we all have with mental health. Perhaps it is the fear of being judged by others. There certainly seems to be a lot of folks living in Kevlar houses these days. Perhaps it is the fear of being labeled and thought of as “different.” Perhaps we feel our employment or status in the military would be threatened. Perhaps ending up on a national register for the mentally ill?

Whatever the reasons, the stigma of mental health appears to be one reason people do not access needed services. Dr. Pat Kerrigan has been working on this with our military and various communities. He has identified that, while information about mental illness can help, it is the person-to-person contact, the sharing of each other’s stories, that helps people overcome stigma.

He calls it Strategic Stigma Change. A banker gets up and tells his fellow bankers about a time when he suffered with depression, sought help and got better. At a board meeting, the HR director shares that she sees how folks that use the Employee Assistance Program become more productive and better employees, well worth the investment. Neighbors share that they have common struggles with anxiety, child-rearing and marriage.

Person-to-person, with people we share common interests, experiences or culture. The truth is that mental health issues touch us all. Statistically, one in four of us will be affected by a mental health issue in our life. If you consider family and friends, 100 percent of us will either be or know someone affected by mental health difficulties.

So consider sharing in a safe and respectful way. Reach out to those that need support and understanding. Despite the rhetoric, folks with serious mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than violent themselves, even less so when supported and cared for.

Mental health treatment works; even better when difficulties are caught early.

This article is part of the countywide Healthy 2020 initiative. The mental health access committee is working on a variety of issues to improve the quality, coordination and availability of mental health care in our community. If you are interested in helping out more, visit or contact the local National Alliance on Mental Illness office.

Mental health disorders are very common. Research suggests one in four Americans suffer from a mental health disorder on any given day. To learn more information regarding mental health wellness, please contact your local mental health treatment provider.


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