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Throughout my experiences as a mental health advocate, I’ve repeatedly heard the word “stigma” associated with mental illness. It was a word I had heard before, but not one I paid particular attention to. I had a general idea of what it meant, but it wasn’t until I had firsthand experience with mental illness that I fully grasped the meaning of stigma.

I had a major depressive episode the summer before I began my first year at college. It became so unbearable that I had begun self-harming and come close to attempting suicide. Naturally, this landed me on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward of a hospital for a week. From there, I was placed on a new medicine regimen and began my path to recovery. Somewhere along the way, I chose to be open about my mental illness. I decided that if my story helped even one person, then any backlash I got from sharing was worth it. Many people were very receptive and kind, and some were even grateful that I chose to talk about it with them. But this was not always the case. During these instances, I was directly the victim of stigma. I became more sensitive to how stigma is prevalent in the media and in everyday life. Now, I can thoroughly explain what stigma is.

Stigma is the way that someone’s eyes glaze over and their smile slips into a tight, uncomfortable grimace when you mention that you’ve dealt with a mental illness.

Stigma is being told not to talk about your mental illness, because it’s “off-putting” and makes other people feel uneasy.

Stigma is how mental illness patients and facilities are portrayed in media: deranged, unruly, terrifying. The stuffs nightmares and hell on earth.

Stigma is the fear and shame that many people feel when they are diagnosed, and the crushing pressure they feel to keep their diagnosis a secret or consequentially face social rejection.

Stigma is the way that somebody spits the word “crazy” as an insult, as if having something wrong with the mind is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. It’s knowing that you cannot help the way you are, but feeling devastated at the insult anyways.

I can personally vouch that stigma is a frequent problem when dealing with a mental illness. It hinders willingness to get help and further victimizes people who are already being harmed by a devastating illness. This is the reason why I share my story freely and without shame. The stigma that comes with mental illnesses has been around for years, but it doesn’t have to remain this way.

Do your part to decrease the stigma by avoiding terms like “crazy” and “psycho”. Learn basic information about mental disorders. Most importantly, be tolerant when people talk about personal experiences with mental illness. You have no idea what they’ve already been through.