What happens when you’re confronted by mental health stigma?

comicWhat would you do?

I was at a luncheon today for a networking group our business belongs to and before our program each week we have “table talk.” There are roughly 80 members that attend each week and we sit at tables of maybe 5-8 people, depending on who shows up. Some weeks we have a specific topic we’re supposed to address, sometimes we just shoot the breeze. Today was more of a shoot the breeze day, and, as usually happens talk turns into what’s going on in the news or in sports, etc. Today the conversation turned towards gun control and politics in the wake of the tragedy in Virginia last week. While the guys (it was all men at my table today) went back and forth over guns (some have never fired one and never want to, others own and use guns) there all of a sudden seemed to be a consensus in the group. While guns were undeniably a part of the problem, the real issue is the mentally ill people getting them. There were nods and “mm-hmms” around the table. Someone commented that the shooter had exhibited some mental health problems. Someone said, sure, but nobody turned him in. Finally someone said something that seemed to be the final word on the subject: They ought to institutionalize these people and get them off the street.

I don’t know. Maybe I should have said something before everyone was agreeing with that point. Maybe I should have said, “Actually guys, that guy represents a pretty small percentage of the mentally ill people in this country.” Or perhaps something along the lines of “Most people with mental illness are a much larger danger to themselves than they are to anyone else.” I could have brought up that the reason there are people who aren’t getting treatment is because the mental health treatment options for people in this country suck (for lack of a better word).

That instead of locking the mentally ill up (which is, by the way, something that unfortunately is already happening way too much) we might consider how expanded access to treatment (one of the goals of Obamacare) could help people get the care they need. How continuing to fund research into mental health, instead of making cuts, could help us discover more effective treatments. And how each of us can take a moment to think before we speak, because we don’t know who at our table may have some form of mental health issue.

I could have said those things. Maybe I should have. But I didn’t. I sat there, feeling my face go a bit red as I tried to sit lower in my chair, worried they would see me and know. That they’d know I was mentally ill. That there’s something wrong with me. So I stayed quiet, not wanting them to pick up on anything that might give me away.

I’m very lucky that I have family and friends who are supportive and make the effort to understand what’s going on with me so I’m not often caught off guard like this. I certainly don’t think that these guys meant anything personal or maybe even realized how they sounded. But how do you respond when it happens?

No, I’m seriously asking- when you hear this kind of talk from people, do you cut in and say anything, or do you grit your teeth and just try and get past it? I want to hear some ideas or stories about times others have been in a similar situation.


2 thoughts on “What happens when you’re confronted by mental health stigma?

  1. —-What happens when you’re confronted by mental health stigma?

    I do not validate anyone directing “stigma”. I acknowledge their prejudice, reject it and try to educate them.

    What do you do when you are confronted by someone with that prejudice?



  2. That’s great. I find that as much as I want to educate people sometimes that can be difficult in the moment- particularly if you have some form of professional relationship with the people, as I did in this case.

    I wish talking to people about mental health were easy, but the reality is that it can be a difficult conversation for many people to have.


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