Destigmatizing Mental Health Services


So much has been said in 2020 about destigmatizing or decolonizing mental health services, but what do we really mean? It’s an opportunity to step back. As providers we send subtle and not so subtle messages regarding normalcy.

What’s Normal?
We don’t have to respond to this query only if clients ask us directly whether they are normal. In fact, that’s the point of this blog. It’s about the behavior of the provider. Whether or not clients ask, it’s worth exploring any implicit notions we might be communicating regarding normalcy. What language are we using? Do we imply certain expectations in our responses to certain behaviors?

Being Aware of Dominant Norms
Is the norm we communicate the dominant norm of people who are not BIPOC? (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Many mixed-race individuals and third culture kids, for example, find that their beliefs are not represented in monoracial culture. That doesn’t mean that they are not “normal.”

How Trauma Plays A Role in Our Behavior
When we think about it, the way the body responds to threat is quite normal. It’s how we are made. The body’s natural inclination is to protect itself from real or imagined threats. Living in stressful situations for a long time can promote many variations of protection:

  • Avoidance
  • Denial
  • Projection
  • Busyness
  • Distraction
  • Humor
  • Anger

The Danger of Stereotypes and Implicit Bias
The connection is this. Implicit bias can lend itself to prejudging a person’s behavior. This can prevent us from seeing the behavior in its proper context. Holding implicit bias can result in stereotypes that categorize behavior as departures from the norm. As providers of mental health services we can fail to appreciate the behavior for what it really is.

Racial Stereotypes
In other words, a racial stereotype of an “angry Black woman” may misjudge a normal reaction. Is being resentful or passive any less angry than speaking in an elevated tone? Is the facial expression even angry at all? Does it make a difference if the listener disagrees with what is said? Then is the person angry? Decolonizing or destigmatizing mental health services is about fully embracing experiences beyond dominant norms. It also requires checking for implicit bias and stereotypes that limit how we understand wellness and good mental health. Let’s face it, it would be unfair to make the practitioner the reference point of all things normal.

The Myriad Ways in Which The Body Responds to Trauma
Our bodies have all sorts of ways in which they respond to perceived threat. These reactions are “normal.” So much of healing is about treating ourselves with compassion and understanding regarding the ways in which we behave and manage our stress and anxiety. We destigmatize mental health when we allow these compassionate ways as part of the therapeutic process.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility for our behavior. It does imply that we don’t have to continue to live in shame and afflict ourselves because of our normal way of responding to overwhelm.

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

― Glenn Close

You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing here.

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