3 Ways to Reduce Mental Health Stigma

Image of mental health stigma in teens

In our new book, Mental Health 101 for Teens, all four authors talk about our personal mental health journeys, and there’s one thing we have in common: back when we were teens, we all felt some level of mental health stigma in the culture around us.

Mental health stigma is the common shame, fear, and misconceptions people have surrounding the topic of mental health. Stigma permeates our culture as if mental health is only experienced by people who are somehow weak or broken. (Couldn’t be further from the truth!)

The reality is: we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and it’s something we can work on our entire lives.

Mental health is an essential part of our total health. So, how can we all help reduce the stigma?

1. Expand the definition of mental health

Only a few decades ago, mental health was seen as an intervention for people with mental illness. It was a way of preventing something harmful.

Of course, mental health is still about preventing and treating mental illness. But it’s also about promoting and developing mental wellness! (Preach!)

Thankfully, society has grown to see the many positive aspects of mental health and wellbeing.

We all benefit from developing better coping skills for stress and anxiety. We all benefit from greater emotional intelligence and resiliency.

Maybe we need to re-brand the term, “mental health.”

That’s exactly what they in the U.S. Government during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Council for Behavioral Health CHANGED ITS NAME.

For real.

They re-branded as The National Council for Mental Wellbeing (thenationalcouncil.org).


Being well.

That’s an idea we can all support.

2. Have a non-judgmental and supportive mindset

When a friend mentions mental health issues, do you lean in with empathy? Perhaps you should if the person is dealing with something heavy or if they might be in crisis. This is where you use your emotional intelligence. You might even have to ask them more probing questions.

If they seem to be in crisis, don’t leave them until they’re safe. Call 911 if it’s a safety issue. Call their parents or guardians for them. They can also call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

But what if the person is not in crisis at all? Perhaps you shouldn’t assume a posture of sympathy if the person is merely, let’s say, talking about their recent therapy session, and they’re using a more positive tone.

In this case, maybe you could respond with something like, “Wow, thank you for sharing that with me. I just think it’s awesome that you’re being proactive with this. Way to go! I need to do more of that. Do you want to talk more about it?”

(Or however you would say it in your own words.)

Be just as excited for the friend who happily goes to therapy as the friend who happily goes to the gym. Both activities support their total health.

3. Speak with openness about your own mental health journey

Be proud of the time you spend on your own mental health (and wellbeing!). Whether it’s your daily routine, self-care activities, support groups, counseling, therapy, or medication. If you use them and they’re helping you, then obviously you need to see these things as positive aspects of your life.

Your mental health is valuable to you, so you spend time on it. You work on it. And you’re proud of it.

If you found a helpful tool, from an article or from a counseling session, find ways to share what you’re learning in an appropriate setting with people who care about you. Don’t overshare to people you barely know, but try to encourage everyone to speak freely about their own journey. It’s a no-judgement zone.

And why wouldn’t it be? Everything in life wears down and breaks down due to normal use over the course of time: your car, your home, your computer, and even… you.

We all need a checkup, a tune-up, or a fill-up (pick your metaphor). Sometimes we need routine maintenance, and sometimes it’s a major event. The point is: without actively working on our mental health, it breaks down naturally when we do… nothing. That’s what I talk about at mental health school assemblies across the country – becoming and then staying a mentally healthy person… never perfect, but always growing.

As you share your journey with caring people in your life, it reduces the level of mental health stigma, and it gives other people permission to do the same.

Tom Thelen is the lead author of Mental Health 101 for Teens. Follow him @bullyingspeaker and at https://TomThelen.com.