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Words can carry stigma, cloud our thinking on mental health

As a licensed mental health professional and passionate mental health advocate, I unfortunately know all too well the detrimental impact of stigma.

I have witnessed countless people refuse to talk about their mental health challenges or even seek help because of concerns over how they might be perceived, the potential risk of losing a job or just simply not knowing how to manage the discomfort that comes with a mental health condition.

Did you notice I used the word condition instead of disorder or mental illness? That was intentional.

Mental health vs. mental illness

While mental illness refers to a diagnosable mental health condition that affects a person’s mood, behavior or thinking, mental health encompasses a broader range of factors that contribute to overall well-being, such as emotional resilience, coping skills and social support.

Another way to think about mental health is equating it to a spectrum. It can be argued that mental illness is one part of that spectrum, but mental health is fluid and something we all have and experience.

By making this distinction, the focus is on promoting a holistic understanding of mental health and encouraging people to prioritize self-care and seek support when needed, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition or not.

That’s why it is so important to normalize something that we all have: mental health.

As we navigate life, we all will experience varying degrees of stress, anxiety, emotional and other life challenges that can affect our mental wellness. But just like physical fitness, mental fitness is something that we can train and improve with regular practice and care.

National Alliance on Mental Illness

As the first Nevadan elected to NAMI’s national board of directors, what motivated me to hold a seat at the national level was the potential opportunity to rebrand NAMI’s name.

“Mental Illness” reinforces stigma and is not inclusive of the entire mental health spectrum, which NAMI represents as the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country.

In various communities, the term illness evokes a number of negative connotations. Veterans, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous and communities of color, first responders, young people and those living with severe mental health conditions are affected by the labels and messaging we use. If we are not careful, more people will continue turning away from the help they need and deserve.

NAMI has a great responsibility in improving the lives of those affected by mental health conditions, and to continue reaching the masses, we must get more creative with the “I” in our name.

NAMICon 2023

In late May, I had the honor to attend NAMICon, the alliance’s flagship annual conference.

One of the keynote speakers at the Minneapolis gathering was designer, business owner and philanthropist Kenneth Cole. He founded the Mental Health Coalition in 2020, which is focused on ending stigma by changing the way we talk about mental health. To support his efforts, Cole has brought together powerful organizations, brands and influencers such as Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Kevin Love.

He made many powerful points in his keynote, but what really resonated was this: “To begin with, it is not just this helpful vocabulary to speak about mental health. There is a functional vocabulary that is nonstigmatized; it is global, universal and accessible.”

Cole’s statement was telling, because if we are not using the proper language, then how can we truly get to the root of the problem?

The theme of NAMICon 2023 was “Together for mental health,” and the only way we will eradicate stigma associated with mental health is by first agreeing, together, that we need to change our vocabulary.

Dr. Sheldon A. Jacobs, Psy.D., LMFT, is a licensed mental health professional based in Las Vegas. Contact him at drjacobs10@hotmail.com. Follow @drjacobs33 on Twitter and Instagram.

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