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Painted Brain | Navigating Internalized Mental Health Stigma
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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Navigating Internalized Mental Health Stigma

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hands supporting one another

Mental health. It’s a term that can feel so foreign, and yet it affects our everyday lives. Our ability to get out of bed. Our relationships. Our hopes and expectations about today, tomorrow, the next day.

The problem of stigma

It can be difficult to reflect on our mental health and the challenges that we face when it comes to being mentally well. Maybe it’s our culture, our family, our community, or our inner dialogue, that poses these challenges through various stigmas.

Maybe we don’t talk about mental health in our family–maybe it’s a quiet shadow in the corner of the room that no one looks at. Maybe we don’t talk about mental health because our culture deems it as a non-necessity or a weakness. Maybe to verbalize our struggle is to garner perplexed looks from those in our community, those we can usually count on for support and camaraderie.

Maybe it’s our internalized stigma–our self-denial, our fear, our judgmental thoughts–that keeps us from honestly addressing our mental health issues. Regardless of the cause, mental health stigma can magnify the struggle to overcome trials in the pursuit of mental wellness.

Treat yourself

by Etienne Girardet https://unsplash.com/photos/Ai6WKLEakak

Not stigmatizing yourself

For my own mental health journey, I realized that the hardest stigmas for me to overcome were my own. I had to intentionally reflect on my life rather than mindlessly go through the motions in the hopes that things would somehow figure themselves out. I had to journal about how I felt, even if I didn’t feel like it. I had to read about mental health, even though it brought up unpleasant personal realizations. I had to cry–I had to be okay with crying–even though it made me feel vulnerable. I had to open up to those I could trust, even when the words were physically hard to give voice to because they made me feel weak. I had to train my thoughts to cling to comforting, wise words… “be anxious for nothing,” as Philippians 4 says.

I had help along the way. I am fortunate that, despite the stigmas I faced from my inner thoughts and surrounding environment, I was able to call on my community­­–my husband, my sister, my parents, and friends from my church­­–for encouragement and guidance. I was able to find resources online and in books.

As I trained my own inner voice to be kinder and as I intentionally built new lifestyle habits, my thoughts about mental health changed, and the external stigmas I was faced with didn’t seem so daunting or hurtful. They actually became more apparent, and thus, easier to address. I was able to identify that desire to be perfect and to lead a seamlessly aesthetic lifestyle as an unhealthy expectation that is common in Los Angeles culture. I realized that my internalized fear of failure stemmed from a sense of pride and pressure common in academia, a culture that places much emphasis on titles, grades, and college degrees.

Understanding and supporting others

As I learned these lessons, I had empathy for those in my life who I wasn’t able to talk to about my struggles, because I realized they didn’t even want to talk about their own mental health trials. I could now identify their own fears of being perceived as weak or broken, because I was aware of that feeling in myself.

Like physical health, our attention to our mental health must be consistent and intentional. We must build daily habits and routines that support our emotional and relational wellbeing. We must find community.

It is a growth process that never ends. We continue to err, to learn, to find balance. Each chapter of the journey brings new revelations.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on this journey so far is to start with what is in my own control, like my internal stigmas. How can I be aware of them in order to correct them? How can I share what I’ve learned about stigma with others? I may not be able to change the fallen parts of the world or society or the intersecting cultures that color my life, but I can start by helping myself and the person next to me.

[Related: Stigma-free language and what it entails for mental health]
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