Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illnesses. It is estimated that nearly one in four adults in the U.S. have reported experiencing anxiety at one point in their lives. Despite these facts, few people seek mental health care treatment for anxiety. In fact, only one in ten people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder receive adequate treatment.
The Effects of Stigma
While educating people about the causes of anxiety and the many available treatment options is the first step to encourage them to seek professional care, it is not enough. Many people in our society still hold negative views about those with anxiety and other mental health disorders and feel uncomfortable around them. This fosters stigma and discrimination, which can contribute to an individual’s worsening anxiety and become an obstacle to their seeking treatment.
Stigma is a mark of disgrace or shame associated with a quality or circumstance, a negative attitude toward those who have mental health or other problems. Individuals with anxiety disorders are often considered unpredictable, neurotic, or weak and need to just toughen up.
The consequences of stigma are severe. The stigmatization of anxiety causes a person to have diminished self-worth and confidence, and to feel socially disconnected from peers. This social disconnection may serve to worsen someone’s anxiety, and their fear of being labeled often becomes a barrier to seeking appropriate care.
Four Steps to Follow
It has been shown that having a strong support system and a sense of community are positive aids in coping with anxiety. Whether you are suffering from anxiety, you are a friend or family member of someone with anxiety, or you’re a mental health advocate, you can take these steps to help remove stigma.
- Talk openly about mental health. If you have anxiety, try to find the courage to share your story. If you are an advocate, talk openly about mental health by using stories as inspiration. (The late actress Carrie Fisher was a great inspiration when talking about her bipolar disorder, and other actors and athletes have also discussed their struggles with mental health.) Anyone can speak up to educate others about negative stereotypes and attitudes.
- Be conscious of your language. Instead of saying “he’s anxious,” which defines a person, frame your statements in more humanizing ways: “He is a person with anxiety.” or “He has anxiety.”
- Listen without judgment and be available and empathetic when someone talks about their own anxiety. Avoid diminishing their struggle: “Oh, everybody gets stressed.” or “Do you think you’re overreacting?” Avoid fix-it statements: “Well, just try and relax.” or “Calm down.” Know that anyone who opens up to you has already thought about these statements. Allow people to be themselves when they are comfortable, and do not try to steer conversations toward anxiety or any other topic.
- Remember that everybody is an individual, and they all have different aspects of who they are. For those with anxiety, it is just one aspect of their personality. Anxiety does not define someone, even if they are talk openly about it.
Arick Wang is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University with a focus on neuroscience and animal behavior. His research, conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center, focuses on infant rhesus macaques. In collaboration with Dr. Jocelyne Bachevalier, he studies the relationship between brain development and early social skill acquisition, with a focus on autism spectrum disorder. Arick previously earned his Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology in 2012 and his Master of Arts in Psychology in 2015, both from Emory University.