How can we Change our Mental Health Stigma?

Updated: Apr 1

If you have missed my previous article on why we have mental health stigma, follow this link to check it out. The current article is all about how we can create change – whether we deal with mental disorders ourselves, know people close to us who are struggling, come into contact with mental health issues within our professions or community, or simply want to make sure all people are treated with respect and compassion.



Every single one of us is affected by mental health stigma. Every single one of us is responsible for doing their part in changing mental health stigma. It is not the responsibility of only people who are dealing with mental disorders to reduce mental health stigma for the whole of society.


Be willing to learn about mental health. If we do not know what behaviours to expect, of course we may be wary, worried and avoidant. Reading up on symptoms of various mental disorders is simple – there are a plethora of high-quality laymen articles online, including mayoclinic.org or webmd.com. Educating ourselves also includes being honest about our lack of knowledge on certain things and asking open questions. It’s okay to not know everything, but it’s important to be able to have the conversation. Beyond that, it’s so worthwhile reading up on first-person accounts of mental health issues. This really gives us perspective on what can be like living with mental disorders, which in turn not only takes away some of the confusion and uncertainty, but importantly is likely to increase our compassion, empathy and understanding.


Learn to support people experiencing acute mental distress. Most information about mental disorders will highlight triggers or sensitivities that come along with these. Beginning to understand these can help us to react differently when someone is experiencing acute mental health issues. Quite often, it’s a matter of simply sitting with the person and being emotionally supportive; not about trying to “fix” something. Knowing how we can help will make us more confident in stressful situations. Besides, these skills can often transfer to nurturing our own mental health – no one is immune to mental health issues.

Be conscious of language. Language can make you feel included or excluded in your community. While many people like to shrug things off as “jokes” or “I didn’t mean it that way”, we will all have experienced a moment in which words hurt us. Using mental disorders as adjectives to express our dislike of something or someone ostracizes people. “He’s a bit schizo”, “That’s retarded” or “She’s insane” are misplaced attributes to behaviours that we may be annoyed and frustrated by. By using such phrases, we dehumanize and marginalize people who are truly experiencing mental health issues.


Practice Empathy Fear can override our whole system. If we are fearful of something, our brain tells us to be cautious and avoid. In this state, it can be difficult to feel compassionate or empathetic toward other people as our body is most focussed on survival. Reduce the fear through education on mental health issues and make a conscious effort to practice empathy. Someone with mental health issues may be experiencing distressing thoughts, feelings or behaviours. If we take an empathetic stance, we listen to find out what the experience is like, we provide support and understanding, and we try to imagine the world from their view. Empathy and validation, truly feeling understood by someone else, is often more important that trying to “fix what’s wrong”. It allows people to go through their experience while feeling supported rather than judged or like they are a problem.


Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. Mental disorders are often described in terms of what people cannot do, rather than what they can do. While this can be needed to help with clarity and decide on treatment, such focus can foster helplessness, inferiority, guilt, and at worst, can be dehumanizing. As with most things in life, mental disorders may have both distressing and beneficial components. For example, while extreme anxiety can be debilitating, an intrinsic need for organization and routine can be highly effective in accomplishing many tasks. Likewise, while severe emotional ups and downs can be debilitating when they occur, experiencing a wide range of feelings has been linked to increased empathy, attention to detail, decision-making and resilience.


People are not their disorder. People may have symptoms of bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, but they are not their disorder. In other words, saying “you are bipolar, OCD or schizophrenic” is reductionist and overly emphasizes mental disorders when they are only a part of what a person is experiencing. It tends to put people into categories from which it is challenging to emerge. Acknowledging that mental health issues are a part of someone’s experience, rather than defining them over these, reduces mental health stigma.


Have an active voice. If we can speak up when we recognize mental health stigma, then three things happen: 1) We identify mental health stigma openly, normalizing conversation around mental health; 2) We provide support to people who are dealing with mental disorders by letting them know that we aware and willing to work toward reducing stigma; and 3) We provide support to society, by creating an environment of understanding, respect and compassion, which we will ultimately benefit from whether for mental health issues or otherwise.


Reducing mental health stigma improves health and wellbeing of society as a whole. In our lifetime, statistics show that 1 in 7 of us globally will experience a period of mental health issues, with some mood and anxiety disorders being as common as 1 in 4 people. Even if we are able to live our lives without any episode of poor mental health, every single one of us is affected by mental health stigma, either on the giving or receiving end. Every single one of us is responsible for doing their part in changing mental health stigma.


If you have missed my previous article on why we have mental health stigma, follow this link to check it out. In the meantime, if you or someone you care about needs support through their struggle with mental health issues or stigma, get in touch on (852) 2715 4577 or e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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