Importance of Reducing Stigma Around Mental Health & Wellness

by Beth Medina
CEO of The Innocent Justice Foundation

Mental health is a vital component of overall health and wellness, but it has often been stigmatized and misunderstood. Ignorance, negative attitudes and out dated beliefs increase stigma surrounding mental health and can lead to discrimination, social isolation, and inadequate access to healthcare services which can lead to negative outcomes for individuals and society at large. It is crucial to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and wellness to ensure everyone has access to appropriate mental healthcare services and support.

There is a saying, “You are only as sick as your secrets”. Reducing stigma helps to provide open spaces of care for us to participate in difficult discussions and be courageous enough to speak honestly about the pain we carry and the challenges we face, sometimes daily. Unburdened by the weight of judgement and shame we have the opportunity for self-reflection, growth, healing and connection. Suffering in silence has never saved or healed anyone. Consider for yourself a time when you really needed someone to listen, to be there for you in a dark time. Can you remember how if felt in the moment when just the right person showed up for you? Can you connect to the sense of relief you felt, the feeling of being seen and cared for? That is just the kind of feeling that we can intentionally promote and create by dismantling the stigma associated with talking about mental health and well-being.

In the many years I have been working to support law enforcement and allied professionals through our SHIFT and HART programs, I have witnessed, first-hand, the promising changes in the way we talk about mental health and wellness and the understanding that asking for help and support is a sign of strength and courage. In training room after training room, from city to city across the country, I have witnessed individuals courageously share their experience, talking about the pain they carry from difficult cases, the horrors they have witnessed countless times while working to rescue exploited children, the isolation they have felt when they thought they should just be able to power through and the effect that isolation has had on their families and primary relationships. I’ve also witnessed the “lightbulb” moments when a participant has realized their responses are entirely appropriate and natural, when they came to understand that we can’t think ourselves out of a trauma response and I’ve felt the collective relief in a room when it becomes clear that none of us are alone when it comes to the feelings and responses related to the horrific things we have seen and experienced. In those moments I have witnessed the grace and power of connection and it is nothing short of miraculous. Look, I am a mental health professional, I understand and can talk about the body’s response to trauma and tools and techniques we can use to help our brain and bodies recover til the cows come home, but I can’t and don’t fix anyone. It is the collective empathy and connection in that space and time that provides the healing and growth and it is a privilege for me to work in the service of holding that space. I continue to be in awe of the resiliency I see while in the rooms and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that process.

Happiness is a subjective experience that can be influenced by a range of factors and well-being is greatly influenced by the ability to find and feel joy. Happiness is a protective factor in our well-being. Here are 4 of the most important things you have taught me about happiness over the years (which also happen to be supported by loads of research):

  • Positive relationships are the most important factor in happiness and wellbeing
  • Meaningful work is essential for happiness
  • A sense of purpose is crucial to happiness and a protective factor for well-being
  • A sense of humor is superpower; it is vital to our well-being

I think of positive relationships as the factor that provides a sense of belonging and support and comfort when we are in need. Those relationships also allow us to feel known, loved and connected. Meaningful work is how we feel engaged in the world around us and provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Making a positive impact helps increase our sense of happiness. Our sense of purpose is like the North Star for our well-being. When times are difficult and life is challenging, our sense of purpose is the thing that often helps us gain perspective and carry on in the face of adversity.  It is where we find the power to rest, not quit. Finally, you have taught me that a sense of humor can’t be underestimated as a powerful factor for well-being. There has never been a class in the ten years I have been doing this work that hasn’t included laughter. We have had fun and laughed in every single space we have shared together. It’s been remarkable, even when we have shared deeply painful and frustrating experiences. Ya’ll are FUNNY(!) and you have taught me so much about the resilience of the human spirit.

As we start Mental Health Awareness Month, I just want to encourage you all to keep talking about mental health and well-being. We have come so far and there are still miles to go. Keep building strong teams based in purpose and care for one another in pursuit of the mission. Our communities are stronger and more resilient for your efforts. Take good care of yourself and let those who love you be there for you as you are no doubt there for them. Those relationships are the true treasure and deserve to be protected and nurtured. Thank you for all you do and give to this work. We are here to support you, advocate for you and we know your immense value.