Humans are inherently social creatures, yet we often feel the need to hide feelings of depression, anxiety, grief and stress from those around us. What is it that keeps us from speaking our fears and feelings to friends, family, coworkers, or peers, let alone acting on those feelings enough to find a therapist or counselor? For some, it’s a sense of shame, reinforced by mental health stigma or perceived mental health stigma. Teenagers, for example, generally accept that mental illness is not a character flaw, but individual teens consistently perceive their peers’ stigma against depression and other mental health problems as harsher than their own.
Overcoming stigma and perceived stigma to get people the counseling, therapy, and support they need can’t happen overnight. It requires a combination of community education, peer support, and familial encouragement, but peers are the group most able to help. Some colleges are training students as mental health “Gatekeepers” who know what to look for in their classmates’ behavior and where to send them for help. But it’s not just teens or students. In fact, a recent program aimed at helping sex workers access social services and addiction treatment found that peer-based outreach programs, staffed by current and former sex workers, were highly effective. And more and more peer-led adult mental health programs are popping up in the U.S. and Canada.
So it’s important that we know what to look for and are willing to make ourselves vulnerable in order to help a coworker or classmate find a therapist and get help. This is especially true if you witness signs of depression or other mental health issues in a close friend or family member who you know well. You’re in one of the best positions to recognize a problem that acquaintances may not notice, and even subconsciously, people give deference to those who they’re closest to. Above all, be willing to reach out and speak up if you know something is wrong. Along with stigma, people may resist treatment because they think, in their depression, that no one cares. Use your actions to show them otherwise: help them get help.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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