I am South Asian and I grew up in Palo Alto, California, so I’ve known two communities that face unique forms of stigma around mental health. In South Asian communities, mental health is highly stigmatized and tied to family reputation; people can experience shame over mental health disorders or feel that their community will view them (or their families) negatively if they openly admit to having a mental health disorder. Moreover, in many communities, beliefs about the causes of mental health disorders can be tied to religious beliefs that are contradictory to the view that mental health providers hold, which often includes biochemical factors. Growing up in Palo Alto, I faced a different kind of pressure and stigma: one where everyone felt they needed to be the perfect student and that any sign of weakness was a flaw.
Regardless of the form of stigma, we need to eradicate it. Getting better starts with recognizing the disorder and having the appropriate support to combat it. As I grew older, I began to realize that nearly everyone was working on themselves in some way—trying to get better at dealing with stress, trying to interact with others more meaningfully, or trying to understand themselves better. But no one was willing to talk about it.
Before we can get better, we need our communities to get better. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of friends who are dedicated to improving mental health access and awareness in their communities. Some join a mental healthcare group and raise awareness by holding events. Others are involved in mental health through their profession, by being social workers or psychiatrists. Some people just talk to their family members and community members about it. All of these methods are amazing
Even when there is stigma, we can work around it and we should. Stigma will be around for a while, and forcing someone to be open about their mental health if they don’t want to or if they come from a community that has a lot of stigma can be more damaging than helpful. Work to improve the community, but also focus on helping the people in front of you now. If someone is facing stigma, have them do a psychiatric or therapy visit from home via videochat. Use technology innovatively to get around stigma—it’s the people who face stigma that we need to increase access to treatment for the most. Bringing psychiatrists and therapists to communities to mediate conflicts, bringing them into people’s homes via videochat and phone, and helping people understand the science behind mental health and treatment is key. If treatment helps someone in a community with a lot of stigma, in the future they will be even better advocates for promoting mental health treatment in their community.
More than anything, talking about and normalizing mental health is the only way to break the stigma. Understanding the scientific roots of both the disorders and the treatments will help us treat these disorders like any other medical problem. Until we’re able to talk about mental health openly, being aware of and creative about outwitting stigma will be essential.