When Stigma Prevents People from Getting Help

While talking with a friend over coffee recently, he told me that he had to see a doctor for some severe gastrointestinal issues and pain he had been experiencing. The doctor thought my friend Michael* might have Crohn’s disease, a serious autoimmune condition that manifests throughout the GI tract. After some tests, they luckily found that it was not Crohn’s, but rather, stress-induced GI symptoms. For treatment, Michael received a prescription for a probiotic and a medicine to calm his stomach, but overall, his doctor told him that he would need to begin counseling to manage his stress.

I told him, “Michael, that will be great! You’ve always had so much stress and anxiety about homework and succeeding and doing your absolute best all the time, it only makes sense that it’s started to affect your body physically. Counseling is a wonderful tool. I know it will help you so much.”

“Maybe…” he said, “I’ve never thought I needed counseling. I’m so embarrassed to admit it. You’re the only person I feel comfortable telling this to because of your own experiences. I haven’t told anyone else, besides my parents obviously.”

“There is nothing to be embarrassed about whatsoever!” I replied passionately. “Your mental health is JUST as important as your physical health, and it deserves just as much care and attention. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that even though mental health conditions happen in the brain, the brain controls the rest of the body, and therefore, the body experiences physical symptoms alongside mental illness. They are linked! With counseling, you’ll be able to care for your mental well-being and learn stress management techniques, which will then help your physical health.”

Michael was still very hesitant about whether he actually wanted to go to counseling, even after his doctor advised him to do so and after I explained how much it will help his overall health. This frustrated and saddened me, because the stigma claiming that people who experience mental illness, or who seek treatment for mental health challenges, are embarrassing, shameful, lowly; this stigma was going to prevent my friend from getting the help he needed. He was taking his new medicine just fine, but the mental health treatment was an unnecessary suggestion, not a real form of medical care, in his eyes and the eyes of so many others.

It is for people like Michael that we fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. All mental health concerns and treatments deserve to be treated seriously and to not be judged. There is no shame in admitting you have a mental health condition, and there is no shame in getting help.

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern