When we’re talking about stigma, we’re really talking about the fear of stigma. People don’t open up about mental health because they’re afraid of what others might say or do. It’s a fear of a possibility. And avoidance of something based on anxieties about other people is no different than any other social anxiety or OCD behavior. In other words: the fear of stigma is part of the illness.
We know that trying to avoid feeling anxious is one of the causes of anxiety disorders. We try to avoid that negative experience and, unfortunately, end up only creating more of the very experience we’re trying to avoid. I tried to fight anxiety for years and years with compulsive avoidance behaviors and it only made me an anxious wreck.
The path to beating anxiety is to realize there’s nothing to beat and, instead, to accepting it into your life. So if we’re trying to fight stigma because we don’t want to experience it, aren’t we engaging in the same unhealthy avoidance behaviors we engage in that we already know only make mental illnesses worse?
I don’t think campaigns to defeat stigma are effective. Having a campaign to defeat stigma is like having a campaign to defeat anxiety. In fact, I think campaigns to defeat stigma only educate people on how to be afraid. I’m really lucky I only watch Korean television. If I saw the how-to PSAs you North Americans put out about bullying, mental illness, and stigma, I’d be terrified to talk about my own mental health.
So how do we get over the fear of stigma? The same way that research shows we get over any fear: by doing the thing we’re avoiding because of that fear. Just as you get over your fear of heights by going to a high place and showing your brain that you can be afraid and still act according to your values, so to do we get over the fear of stigma by putting ourselves in situations we fear being stigmatized in and, instead of reacting to that fear, accepting and acting according to our values.
You can’t defeat a fear of flying by standing firmly on the ground. You can’t defeat a fear of falling by complaining about gravity to everyone you meet. You can’t beat your social anxieties by avoiding people. And we won’t defeat stigma until we stop trying to defeat stigma and instead just start talking about our mental illnesses (yes, it’s a paradox, but it’s a healthy one—learn to love it). Stigma happens, just as planes crash, people fall, and we say stupid things at parties. But do you want the fear of a possibility to control your life?