By Bridget Barry
A justice issue that comes up frequently for JV’s both in their placements and their homes is the stigma associated with mental health conditions and experiences. Check out #JVStories for the next few months for posts that empower us to continue to aspire to create a more just and hopeful world, by acknowledging how challenges impact mental health, and ways we can stand with those serving, care for ourselves, and care for those on the margins.
During my year as a JV, in community we committed to challenging experiences. It was important to me that I brought up in community how these challenges impacted me and my housemates. And how our mental health and compassion fatigue could contribute to rough days.
The importance of recognizing how stigmatizing language and behaviors impacts our clients allows us to serve in a way that is more appropriate. During community night with my house mates, I presented some concrete ways we could better address some of the stigmas in our day-to-day lives, and we actively worked together toward understanding and advocacy.
How can we communicate in a way that recognizes the legitimacy of mental health challenges?
We all get by with a little help from our friends
Asking about someone’s mental health practices in the same way you’d ask about their physical health practices. (when applicable)…to normalize mental health treatment and management, it’s important to not make treatment shameful. If someone is open with you about their mental health needs, then don’t be afraid to say what you mean when questions come up. Ask, “how is group therapy” in the same way you’d ask “how was getting your flu shot?”
End the words that harm
Eliminating the word “crazy” used pejoratively from our vocabulary. When we describe someone as crazy (especially someone who we don’t want a romantic relationship with) we’re being insulting and derogatory towards people who have mental illnesses. One justice oriented action we can take as a community committed to building a more just and peaceful world is a reevaluation and recalibration of the language we use when talking about mental health.
Change the way you say it
Use the phrase, someone died of suicide or almost died of suicide instead of committed or survived a suicide attempt. Suicides overwhelmingly happen in conjunction with mental illness and a lack of social support, unaddressed trauma or adequate mental healthcare. Individuals who die of suicide should not have their suffering framed as a crime, in the same way that adultery or fraud is framed as a crime when committed. Recognizing mental health challenges and conditions marginalizes individuals (and marginalizes certain groups disproportionately) necessitates a further understanding of how we address certain groups and people.
Lift one another up
Not minimizing or normalizing challenges with food and body image by commenting on individual’s weight and making inferences about their health, “she looks unhealthy” can be a coded way of saying “her size makes me uncomfortable”. The confluence of environmental, mental and physical realities that impact how people look is complex, and many of the factors influencing someone’s weight are not readily apparent. It’s important not to use judgmental language, or coded judgemental language.
JVs and members of the JVC community often contemplate and take action to mitigate the marginalizing stigma. As federal and state funding for mental health services is reworked and potentially cut, it is important for individuals to make steps toward justice. A first step could be to build a greater understanding of language that perpetuates mental health stigmas. I challenge you to commit to changing or eliminating a couple phrases that perpetuates the stigma, and educating your peers or members of your community when their language perpetuates the stigma.