This article is part five in a five part column on recovery, mental health and substance abuse.
In the last two years working with people in mental health or addiction recovery, the most important lesson I’ve learned is how crucial it is to eliminate the stigma that accompany these disorders.
People coping with mental illness or addiction have more to deal with than the disorder itself. Often, the stigma and prejudices they encounter are as bad as the disorders’ symptoms themselves.
Negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are common. Stigmas lead to discrimination. Some is obvious and direct, such as negative remarks about a person’s mental illness or treatment. It may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding a person because they assume that person could be unstable, violent or dangerous due to mental illness. Just as damaging, that person could develop self-stigma, negatively judging themself.
There are powerful, negative perceptions commonly associated with substance abuse. Stigmas result in prejudice, avoidance, rejection, and discrimination against people who have an addiction. Even people who have been in recovery many years experience stigma.
One of the most harmful effects of stigma is a reluctance to seek treatment. An individual in need is often concerned their community will have negative opinions of them. Discrimination has been found at the core of our health system, with health insurance not covering behavioral health disorders as extensively as physical disorders. At the moment, insurers are required to treat them equally; however, that may not continue.
Often, lack of understanding comes from family members, along with friends and co-workers. Some employers are reluctant to hire them and educators might treat them differently at school. They can find themselves left out of social activities or have trouble finding housing. The belief that they’ll never succeed at certain challenges or that they can't improve their situation can be transferred to the individual with the disorder.
I asked people in the recovery community what they would most like changed about attitudes towards mental health and addiction issues. Here is what they had to say:
"I myself would like them to quit looking at our past and see that we can change and that we do have a disease with our addiction. So I guess they need to quit being so close-minded.” Anonymous
“I would like to see people look at [their diagnoses] not as a burden, and not afraid to share the struggles faced in all sides. I think the stigma of both illnesses is what holds back healing the most,” said Brian Neilson.
We need more open dialogue about mental health and substance use disorder care. We need to realize that mental health disorders can and do touch the lives of people we care about, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. We need to feel as comfortable talking to a friend about mental and substance use problems as we would be talking about any subject. That will only happen when the stigmas surrounding them are gone.
Is there anything individuals and the community can do to help? Yes!
Get to know those people who are struggling by name. Come together to support your friends, neighbors, and loved ones in recovery. Learn how you can help others through their process of recovery by attending Vernal’s Recovery Days, September 8 & 9, at Ashley Valley Park.
We can change and eliminate stigmas within ourselves. Leaders, neighbors, friends, teachers and you can make a difference in the life of a young person, an adult in recovery and indeed, the entire community.
Susan Mansfield, MSW, CSW, is the director, Utah State University CPSS Training Program, Utah State University - Uintah Basin.