Before May ends and summer really starts, we’d like to emphasize one of the most important parts of Mental Health Awareness Month: raising awareness to fight the stigma against mental illnesses. And while many people are aware of the external stigmas that surround mental health, it’s less common to address another mental health challenge that deserves awareness – internalized stigmas.
What is Self-Stigma?
Similarly to external stigma, internalized stigma can have a lasting impact on a person’s quality of life and overall health for individuals with mental illness. Self-stigma can make you feel like you don’t deserve the same positive experiences or other benefits other people get, like a satisfying career, strong relationships with others, or even new experiences like a vacation or trip with loved ones. Self-stigma can reduce your feelings of self worth and make you feel that you are less valuable than you actually are.
Self-stigma can negatively impact multiple areas of a person’s life, including:
A lot of people experiencing self-stigma have concerns that their mental illness will affect their career. For instance, you might hold yourself back from applying for jobs or promotions because you feel you don’t have the experience or credentials to succeed. Or, you may stay away from more challenging roles because you’re concerned about how they might impact your mental health.
Self-stigma also has the potential to weaken your current relationships and make it hard to develop new ones. If you feel that you are unlovable or a potential burden to others, you won’t be as likely to seek out friendship and romantic partnerships.
Mental and Physical Health
More often than not, individuals with self-stigma are considered less likely to seek healthcare, including counseling services. Because counseling and healthcare provider appointments are fundamental for maintaining health with a mental illness, this delay of care has the potential to make it more challenging to get into recovery and live a stable life. As a result, this can reinforce feelings of self-stigma.
How to Overcome Self-Stigma
To challenge your self-stigma means that you have to change your attitudes and beliefs about yourself, which takes time. Routes to overcome self-stigma usually focus on two approaches: debunking or confronting the negative beliefs, and building self-esteem and empowerment to cope when they feel negative beliefs about themselves.
Below are a few ways to push back against self-stigma for a richer and move self-loving life:
Focus on the Facts
Focus on the facts of your situation instead of the purely negative beliefs you may have about them. These facts can be from more general information about people with mental illness, or also from your own personal experience. For instance, if you don’t feel loved, you could closely consider the loving relationships that you have in your life. Importantly, don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of just saying “I’m an anxious person,” say “I have an anxiety disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” you could say “I have schizophrenia.”
Consider Sharing Your Diagnosis
Some individuals with mental illness find it empowering to share their diagnoses with people around them or just those they know they can trust. You can share broadly, or start by sharing with just a few people. Really, only you can know for sure whether this is the right step for you. If you do choose to communicate your diagnosis, consider reaching out to people you trust for the compassion, support and understanding you need.
Find Experienced Support
Individuals like your counselor or other mental health caregivers are uniquely trained to help you deal with self-stigma. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other strategies can help you develop reliable coping tools for confronting self-stigma. You could also join a support group, even a large one like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which provides local programs and internet resources to help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their loved ones, and the general public.
Living with mental illness is never easy or convenient, but it’s absolutely possible to lead a great life with effective coping methods that push back against self-stigma. With trusted friends, medical professionals, and loved ones to help remind you how meaningful your life is, you can better utilize these strategies on your own toward living a more self-positive life.