Being socially connected is usually a good thing. Building a network of supportive friends and family can help us sort through life’s complicated issues. But could our web of relationships become a tangle that holds us back instead of helping us move ahead? Can the expectations of others keep us from making healthy choices?

Studies of those with mental health disorders, addiction issues and PTSD suggest that fear of being outcast because of social expectations can stop people from seeking treatment.1 Concern about the social stigma that might follow the act of even consulting with a mental health facility often prevents those in desperate need from getting effective professional help. Instead of receiving therapy to get well, many try to hide problems and cope secretly with the pain. Ironically, the imagined possibility of losing friends because of social stigma can cause greater isolation due to real psychological issues left untreated.

In a world viewed through the filters of social media, interaction with friends and family may happen more through clicking links online and less by taking time for face-to-face encounters. An envious online profile may be just an artificial mask that nicely lines up with family, military, college and social media standards — perfect, invincible and self-sustaining — and it creates a conflict between the inner reality and the outer appearance.

Living as a persona instead of a person makes us lonely for our real selves and lonely for others who know our flawed soul and love us anyway. Facebook friends who “like” our online image have fallen for our mask instead of our face. The more friends of this type a person collects, the more isolated they feel.

Pressure to hide mental health issues is not imagined; it’s real. To succeed professionally, an individual must instill confidence in coworkers, not project an aura of neediness. Politicians, celebrities and stars on reality TV shows reinforce social stigmas when they hurl insults using words associated with mental health disorders. From childhood to college, people learn to conform to what everyone else wears, eats and says, so they won’t get tattooed with the social stigma of being in any way “different” from the crowd.

But having mental health issues goes beyond being seen as different to possibly being viewed as deficient or dangerous, and it’s not just the mindless mob that judges. In Psychology Today, Dr. Michael Friedman warns that even doctors may stigmatize people with psychological needs: “This bias is not limited to people who are either uninformed or disconnected from people with mental illness; in fact, healthcare providers and even some mental health professionals hold these very same stereotypes.”1 Education informs the mind, but it is the heart that responds in social settings, where individuals tend to distance themselves from those who are different or may pose an imagined danger.

It may simply be that the majority are socially lazy and don’t want to deal with anyone whose friendship requires extra compassion or accommodation. We may also be influenced by movies that villainize characters with mental health or substance abuse issues. Why is the general audience and Hollywood okay with branding a whole segment of our community with this kind of stigma? We encourage it with our silence and our ticket purchases. Dr. Friedman goes on to explain how destructive this is, saying “…people with mental health issues recognize and internalize this stigma to develop a strong ‘self-stigma.’ This self-stigma will often undermine self-efficacy, resulting in a ‘why try’ attitude that can worsen prospects of recovery.”1

However, a single close friend who can reflect back the truth can lead to healing. No matter how much social stigma affects an individual in a negative way, having at least one person who accepts them is a strong defense.2 That is why networking with others facing the same challenges works when all else fails and lasts when other methods fade.

Gradually, connection forms with friends who really know and still embrace each other. Networks of support lead to therapy, coping skills and career opportunities at companies with an open door of compassion. That is the kind of encouragement and persistent care that works.3 Organizations such as Heroes in Recovery, Hope Soldiers, Lighthouse Recovery Institute, atTAcK Addiction and Collegiate Recovery Program are making connection easier and publishing positive information that can break down stigma on social media.

Sustaining walls of prejudice to fence out those with mental health issues is discrimination. It takes intentional effort on the part of the society that created the stigma to tear down those walls. ADA legislation against discrimination in law enforcement, education, housing and insurance coverage has helped.4 Some segments of the entertainment and news media are also becoming sensitive to the problem and avoiding negative words and characterization of people with mental health needs.

As individuals concerned with this issue, we can go out of our way to be inclusive to friends we know have needs, and show them acceptance and understanding in our offices, churches and communities. We can speak up when we hear labeling words used in everyday life.3 Opportunities for acts of understanding and speaking words of inclusion instead of exclusion are before us daily. Ask how a friend or family member is doing instead of assuming they must be okay if they don’t post a blatant cry for help on social media.2 One caring heart after another doing one intentional deed after another can cause the stigma wall to crumble.


Sources

1. Friedman, Michael PhD. “The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker.” Psychology Today, May 13, 2014.
2. Holmes, Lindsay.Let’s Call Mental Health Stigma What it Really Is: Discrimination.” HuffPost, September 27, 2016.
3. Ella, Rachel. “Five Ways to Support a Mate with a Mental Health Problem.” Time to Change Blog, July 27, 2017.
4. Greenstein, Laura. “Nine Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma.” NAMI.org, October 26, 2015.

Written by Pat Matuszak