Recently I have been thinking more about the social stigma around mental illness. I have a close family member who has long struggled with bipolar disease, and I have witnessed their experience first hand over several decades. Their journey has underscored for me that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes. Just like it makes no sense to morally judge someone with a heart condition, it makes no sense to morally judge someone who is experiencing a mental health condition.
However, my family member’s experience has also clearly demonstrated that there is widespread prejudice and discrimination toward people experiencing mental illness. Because it isn’t easily observable, like a physical disability, mental illness can easily lead to stigmatization or marginalization. Many people carry negative stereotypes of individuals with mental illness, and misleading representations in movies and books make the problem much worse.
This stereotyping has real consequences. People experiencing mental conditions often have concerns about being treated differently or fears about professional or reputational harm. The stigma of mental illness can also be internalized, which can affect relationships with family members and loved ones. Sometimes the discrimination is overt and sometimes it is subtle, but it is always harmful.
These days many of my mediator friends are engaging in a re-examination of their biases around issues like race and gender identity. This reflection, while often difficult and emotional, is long overdue and vital for the work we do as conflict resolvers. But I think many of us also have work to do in confronting our assumptions around mental illness. The mediators I know are totally committed to the best interests of their parties, and they always aspire to be supportive and fair. But just like mediators need to be self-aware and reflective in our practice to confront internal biases around race, gender, and ethnicity, I believe we must also do the work to be self-aware of negative or discriminatory biases we may harbor around mental illness.
One website that has helped me think through some of these issues is the Mental Health Safe Project, which can be found at MHSafe.org. This project offers a variety of resources for helping people address stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination related to mental illness.
The site offers excellent advice for organizations and individuals looking to become “mental health safe,” including: “Have procedures in place to treat all people consistently, regardless of whether someone has a potential mental health problem; Have clear, consistent practices for responding to requests for reasonable accommodations from those who disclose a need related to a psychiatric disability; Have staff trained in how to have empowering, appropriate communication about mental health without disempowering comments or unnecessary inquiries; and, Have a process for addressing inappropriate language or conduct related to mental health problems.” I think this advice is equally as helpful for large entities looking to combat stigma around mental illness as it is for individual mediators who want to ensure that their practice is mental health safe.
For individuals looking to respond to discrimination or stereotyping due to mental illness, the website offers three core principles: a) assume good intentions (most discrimination against people living with mental health problems comes from ignorance rather than malice), b) prioritize collaboration (work together to resolve discrimination and stereotyping, rather than being confrontational) and c) assert rights (rely on legal rights and ethical norms to push for change). You can see that this approach emphasizes communication and cooperation rather than confrontation and litigation, very much aligned with our values as mediators.
Reading through the resources on the MHSafe.org website has encouraged me to think more deeply about the importance of these issues in our work. I think all of us in the mediation field want people with mental health conditions to feel safe and respected, not only in the dispute resolution process, but in every area of their lives. These approaches can help us get closer to that goal.
While we are unquestionably living in an unsettled era, I appreciate the energy and activism of the younger generation aimed at improving empathy, understanding, and inclusion across our society. As part of that activism I have frequently heard the slogan “nothing about us without us,” which is a great shorthand for underscoring the importance of inclusion and tolerance in forging meaningful social change in many areas, including race, gender identity, and religion.
But many people don’t know that the slogan “nothing about us without us” first came into common use in English as part of disability activism. The slogan was used as the title for several books on disability rights through the 1990s, and was even used for a UN Report on disability rights. That history emphasizes the reality that inclusion is not only about discrimination around race and ethnicity. We cannot confront discrimination around mental health without listening to individuals who are actually experiencing mental health conditions. They know better than anyone how stigma and stereotyping can be hurtful and harmful, and only by listening to and partnering with them can we make progress in making things better.
I urge all of us in the mediation field to take the time to consider these topics, to engage in self-reflection and learning, and to follow advice from individuals with first-hand experience in these areas. It can be a challenge to identify discrimination about mental illness because it’s so pervasive in our society, but once we call it out it is important to do something about it. That’s why we must commit to doing the work in an ongoing way to address these issues in our practice, training, and scholarship.