Fighting mental health stigma for suicide prevention

By Leah Hager

Mental illness is often treated like the movie “Fight Club.” The first rule: you don’t talk about it.

Mental health professionals are battling the stigma mental illness often carries with it, encouraging those who suffer from illnesses such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder to bring their struggles into light.

“Destigmatizing saves lives,” said Helmi Henkin, the connection support group facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Helping people who struggle with mental illness by using destigmatizing language helps the recovery process.”

According to NAMI, one in five people experience mental health issues and only 40 to 60 percent of people actually get the help they need.

Least Likely to be an Ally

diagnosis of mental health NAMI

Percentage of Americans mental health diagnoses. Statistics by NAMI.

Henkin wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until adulthood.

“I didn’t think there was something wrong with me,” she said. “If I had gotten treatment earlier in my high school career it might have turned out differently.”

According to NAMI, more than 90 percent of children who died by suicide have a mental health condition.

For Henkin, she struggled under the overbearing weight of anxiety, depression, panic disorder and bipolar disorder since her freshman year of high school. As the illnesses compounded, life became nearly unbearable.

“I became super-duper protective over my brother and it had a negative impact on our relationship,” Henkin said. “My OCD compulsions made it difficult to be around people and I would react negatively if I was interrupted from them.”

Not only were her relationships strained, she fell into a “super deep depression” during her senior year of high school. Though she felt as if the world was completely against her, she still had a safety net to rely on — her family. Henkin’s mother worked with her to help her find a doctor who would finally provide some answers.

“Having a diagnosis was validating for me,” Henkin said. “Finding a solidarity with others is empowering. No one should struggle alone.”

“Having a diagnosis was validating for me. Finding a solidarity with others is empowering. No one should struggle alone.”

Alex House agrees. She was diagnosed at 22 with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) while a student at The University of Alabama, and had a similar experience to Henkin.

“A lot of people don’t think of ADHD as a mental illness, but because it’s not something that’s talked about,” House said. “I don’t have a lot of the impulse symptoms so I didn’t know that the struggles I faced was because my brain worked differently than everyone else.”

According to NAMI nearly 63 percent of adults with a serious mental illness received mental health services in the past year.

“Mental illness can affect anyone,” Henkin said. “There’s nothing wrong with you for having a mental illness.”

Henkin said there is not anything she would go back and change, though.

“Everything I’ve gone through has shaped me,” Henkin said, “I have survived a lot of lows. I am so blessed with the support system around me.”

While she has a strong support system, she acknowledges that others may not be so lucky. NAMI estimates that adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than others.

Henkin said that there are ways to prevent suicide contagion. “Suicide is becoming more understood through research. Promoting ways to get help have alternatives.”

Using destigmatizing language, according to Henkin, helps the road to recovery much smoother. Saying phrases such as “died by suicide” instead of “committing suicide” lowers the stigma attached to suicide and allows people to open up about what they are feeling.

“Don’t beat around the bush,” Henkin said. “Go into exploring how they’re feeling.”