The stigma around mental health is suffocating. Even as a wellness writer, I still hesitate to share my mental health journey. When I watched Oprah interview Dr. Brené Brown, I realized my hesitation was based on fear. Fear of judgment, discrimination, and being seen as “different” in my personal and professional life. I, like others, have been conditioned to be ashamed of my mental health.
With people like Dr. Brené Brown shining a light on shame, I was curious about individuals who talk about mental health openly. So I interviewed three women who do – Libby Ward (mental health advocate, public speaker, influencer, and content creator), Dayka Robinson (designer, writer, podcast host, and clarity coach), and Emma Barrera (mental health advocate and the owner of the Right Hand Glam Engagement Agency and Engagement Academy), about their thoughts on the stigma around mental health.
Why are we so afraid of being honest about how we’re doing?
The stigma around mental health has created a societal pressure to pretend that you’ve got it all together. Add in the unfortunate trend of toxic positivity that tells us to “just look on the bright side” or that it “could be worse,” and it can leave you dismissing your own valid thoughts and experiences.
With stereotypes and negative media portrayals over the years, it’s no surprise that stigmas still exist. Libby, who has a background in sociology, pointed out that “less than 100 years ago when women shared about their mental health struggles, they were literally institutionalized.” The impact of the stigmas has been felt through generations, passed down like a family heirloom.
“We’re little people who became big people with no space for grief or sadness,” said Dayka.
Mental health, for some, has come with shame, the idea that “we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” We’re afraid others won’t get it. We all, on some level, want to fit in, to belong, and even for me, talking about my mental health can make me afraid that I’ll be seen as weak.
“You can find yourself worrying about being ostracized from family and friends if we talk about our experiences,” said Libby.
This is particularly true for those in the Black community. While more and more people of color have become open to getting help, there are still many who think it’s for “crazy” people or that it can be handled with a mindset change and a dash of prayer. A recent study indicated that 63% of the Black community still see mental health as a sign of weakness.
“Black people historically haven’t had the freedom not to be okay. Trauma and stress from slavery and systemic racism can mean not having the bandwidth to be anything but okay,” Dayka added.
Why do we hesitate to get help for mental health?
The challenge of mental health not being taken seriously is a barrier to getting the necessary care. It’s not uncommon for patients (especially women) to leave a doctor’s appointment feeling unheard and dismissed. There’s also a distrust between Black Americans and the health care system that creates another barrier to getting help, on top of the racial discrimination. Implicit bias in the medical community impacts the quality of care Black Americans receive. Not to mention, the difficulty accessing healthcare discourages people even further from getting necessary treatment.
We might also feel stuck in our mental health ruts if we feel like we can’t confide in the people around us. For example, friends might exhibit flippant behavior towards mental health by saying “this weather is so bipolar” or “I’m so OCD about my home.” Sure, these phrases might seem casual, but they minimize the experience of those struggling with mental health.
Plus, notes Emma, “Those types of comments can affect how honest we are about our mental health.” And she’s right; personally, I’ve found myself feeling extra guarded around others after witnessing their stereotypical comments. However, as Dayka points out, that emotion is just a signal for you to consider: “If you feel unsafe speaking your truth, then it lets you know that you need to speak up and set boundaries so that you don’t bury yourself to keep someone else warm.”
Another factor that might prevent you from getting help comes from what we call the “social media comparison trap.” It’s valid to feel like every “it girl” social media profile you see is an accurate portrayal of reality – but chances are, you know that’s not true all the time. Libby confirms that, sharing “There’s a pressure to present myself as perfect and pretend that I have it together and not depressed.”
Adds Emma, “Don’t forget we rarely see someone’s whole story online, and we should all be mindful of what we fill our social media feeds with.”
Accept that you can be perfectly imperfect regardless of how many “it girl” social media profiles you come across. And remember, you don’t *have* to follow anyone – you can feel free to unfollow anyone whose posts make you feel even a little “less-than.”
“When it comes to social media, it’s less about the data (social media) and more about your relationship with the data,” explains Dayka. “Ask yourself why someone’s feed is making you feel that way. Social media can also be inspiring based on who you’re following.”
Being transparent when you’re not “okay.”
It’s safe to say that you probably know at least one person who isn’t okay and they’re hesitant to talk about it (and maybe, just maybe, that person is you). That’s why it’s important for us to be okay with letting people know when we’re not okay.
A common theme in interviewing all three ladies who own their mental health journey was this: they talk about it because they don’t want others to feel alone.
“We usually see the end product of brokenness and not the journey,” says Emma. ”Trust me, you’re not alone.”
“There’s a hand raise and a ‘me too!’ that follows when we admit we’re not okay,” explains Libby. “You’re not alone and there are people who care and want to help you.”
“I want them to think ‘me too’. I truly believe in being a lighthouse for others. When you get to the shore, to safety, you turn your light on to help the next person get there,” expresses Dayka. “Be who you wish you had because there’s someone else thinking that they can’t get through it. I do this for other versions of myself. If one other person knows that they’re not alone, then I’ve done my job.”
When will it be okay not to be okay?
Before we ended our discussions, I asked them for their thoughts on what it’ll take for people to be okay with not being okay.
“Even though we’ve made some progress we’re still undoing centuries’ worth of shame, institutionalization, oppression, all the things that get in the way of people being vulnerable and now we’re moving into this space where to me, my vulnerability is a superpower,” said Libby. “Like Brené Brown said, ‘empathy is the antidote to shame’. Find a safe person that you can talk with.”
“It will take more people not being afraid to hold space and let others know that they’re not alone. Just own it and do what it takes to get the help you need to feel better,” said Emma.
“When we start to tell the truth about how we’re doing. Be the light you want to see, go first,” said Dayka.
So I’ll go first here. My name is Twyla, and I live with chemical and biological imbalances that have contributed to my development of a Mood disorder, Anxiety disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. My journey hasn’t been linear. I’m not always okay, and that’s okay.