There has long been a stigma surrounding mental illness. When we think of this stigma, it is natural to consider the worst version of it – the kind that leads to outright discrimination. However, that’s not what impacts the majority of people facing poor mental health or a diagnosis of a mental illness.
How stigma breaks our empathic response
The broadest threat posed by stigma is that it shuts down our natural empathic response. By “natural,” I mean that we all instinctively understand how to respond when a loved one or colleague is grappling with an illness. If they are diagnosed with breast cancer or do daily injections for diabetes, we believe they deserve our empathy, understanding and support. We don’t judge them since we recognize this is happening to them. It’s not their fault.
With mental health challenges and mental illnesses, however, stigma breaks our empathic response – both towards others and towards ourselves. This stigma makes us feel uncomfortable discussing the topic, and this silencing power perpetuates the problem or even makes things worse.
Stigma and empathy cannot coexist
Thankfully, the solution is simple. If we apply purposeful empathy to this challenge, the stigma of mental health challenges and mental illnesses loses its power. If you learn of another’s suffering caused by failing mental health and intentionally replace fear, judgement and/or discrimination with empathy, compassion, kindness and understanding, the stigma fades away.
More than just being kind
The motivation to end the stigma has higher stakes than most realize. Allow me to refer to my own experiences to explain further.
When I first experienced the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Bipolar 1 Disorder, I was handcuffed by my severe stigma towards mental illness. I also experienced stigmatized comments and actions from many others in my life. The result was that I wasted two years trying to “soldier on” and “try harder” as my illness progressively worsened.
While I was fortunate enough to overcome stigma, as I share in my book, Jason: 1 | Stigma: 0 – My Battle with Mental Illness at Home and in the Workplace, far too many remain mired in denial, which makes self-care and self-compassion impossible. A heartbreaking number of people die by suicide each year because they fall into this trap and are unable to recover. Our stigma and our silence is quite literally costing lives.
This has to stop. #TheWorldNeedsMoreEmpathy!
I have been a StigmaFighter for 15 years and my commitment to help society transform how we deal with this challenge has only deepened. In fact, it is stronger than ever given the myriad ways Covid-19 has impacted mental health on a global scale.
In the past two years, there has been a sharp spike in mental health challenges. How could there not be? In addition to the chronic stress and anxiety we all felt, opportunities for personal connection nearly vaporized.
As we navigate this unique and often overwhelming situation, our ability to empathize with each other becomes more important than ever. If we put empathy first, if we reach out and connect with each other, if we end stigma and discrimination, we can improve our collective mental health.
For those feeling symptoms of mental illness, be sure to reach out to your loved ones, your friends and your trusted colleagues. Speak openly and seek help without shame. And for those who know someone experiencing a change in their mental health, reach out to them without judgement or stigma. Show your empathy for their struggle and offer your help and support.
Doing so may just save a life.
About Jason Finucan
Jason Finucan is a mental health advocate, stigmafighter, professional speaker the author of the book Jason: 1, Stigma: 0 – My battle with mental illness at home and in the workplace.
He is also Founder of StigmaZero, an innovative workplace mental health training company offering live and online programs designed to provide all employee levels with the skills, knowledge and tools needed to better respond to these complex workplace challenges.
Watch Anita Interview Jason Here.
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For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.