Let’s imagine your family is at the soccer field for one of your children’s games. One of the players shows up with a pair of crutches and an announcement. “I broke my foot,” he says.

What would happen? People would probably ask how he’s feeling, how it happened, how long until he gets rid of the cast, and in general just act like they care about him.

Now imagine you’re at the soccer field, and the same player shows up without a cast but instead announces, “I’ve been diagnosed with depression.”

Now what would happen?

Don’t feel bad if you hesitated before answering. A lot of people would. Welcome to the world of mental-health stigma. It’s an uncomfortable place, and it’s time for us to change that.

Now, nobody’s to blame for how they feel. People don’t shy away from mental health issues because they’re bad people, or because they don’t care about their families, friends, and colleagues. It’s easier to talk to someone with a broken leg because fractures are easy to understand. Too much pressure at the wrong point on the bone, and snap! Go to the doctor, get an X-ray, maybe they have to set the bone and give you a cast, and then come back in four weeks.

Mental health is trickier. We can’t see it, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix. You can get a cup of water for the player with the broken leg, but what do you get for the player who’s depressed? Parents don’t normally pack Zoloft with the oranges to snack on after the game.

Remember, it’s not because people don’t care. It’s because people don’t know how to help.

Unfortunately, mental-health stigma does damage in more ways than making the soccer field suddenly awkward. It keeps families from getting help when they might need it. How many times have you seen something on the news and wondered, “Why didn’t that person get help?” Many times, it’s because they’d be embarrassed if anybody found out.

To eliminate mental-health stigma, maybe we should first stop calling it “mental health.” Everyone has problems. Lots of families could benefit from therapy, if only the idea of “therapy” didn’t make them think someone’s “crazy.”

For the record, most of my clients aren’t “mentally ill.” They have normal, every-day issues with feelings, or their families, or friends, or jobs, or – well, just the world in general. Often, they know their families need to change, but they don’t know how to make that happen. Sometimes, they see a clinician simply because they need to talk to an impartial stranger who’s sworn to secrecy about their lives. Whatever the reason, positive change can happen if only we’re not afraid to ask for help.

I once worked with a family whose father refused to participate because he hated the idea of therapy. But as I met with the rest of the family in their home, I noticed him edging closer – in the kitchen one week, then in a chair in the next room another week. Once, he sat on the stairs to listen.
Finally, I found him sitting in the living room with the family when I got there. He later told me, “You’re not like a therapist. You’re like talking to another person.”

That’s not true, of course, but I didn’t argue with him. If that’s what he needed to tell himself to get past the stigma of therapy, I’m fine with that. The important thing is that we got him in the room.

Maybe that’s the first step in reducing mental health stigma — accepting that a lot of people might benefit from being in the room, and that it’s okay, and even normal, to be there in the first place.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio.  He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine.  If you’re interested in an appointment, please call 614-477-5565 or e-mail carlgrody@grodyfamilycounseling.com.)

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