Better Living Through Empathy: National Day Without Stigma

One day last year I was pulling into the parking lot at the bank. A woman was backing out and drove right into the car behind her, seemingly unaware of the possibility that another car might be there. It was odd. I was incredulous. What’s wrong with that person? I thought. I walked over and said pointedly: “You’re going to leave a note, right?” feeling it was my duty to make sure she did the right thing. When I went inside the bank, I mentioned to the teller what I’d just seen. The teller said “Yes, we know her, she has some health problems, she was in earlier and said that she was really not doing well, that her medications were making her feel off. She didn’t look right, we told her to go home.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

Who had the bigger blind spot — the woman in the car, or me? The painful irony was that in fact something was going wrong for this woman, but reacting to her with my judgment and blame, I completely missed what it was. Where I could have been helpful — perhaps, for example, seeing that she was in no condition to drive — I was not.

Usually there are good reasons for the things that happen around us that make no sense. But immediately assigning blame and disgrace for what we see — the definition of stigma — pretty much guarantees that we’ll never find them. We’re not even looking. We think we already know: It’s the other person’s fault. Nowhere is this more evident than with mental health issues. The woman at the bank had a physical condition she was willing to talk about. Had she had depression or anxiety, would she have been able to explain? Would others have accepted her explanation as legitimate?

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.” This is how we remove stigma. When we judge someone, what we reject or don’t like has more to do with our own ideas about them — projected on them from a distance generated by irrational fear or misinformation — than with whom they actually are.

Through understanding, through moving past our snap judgments, fears or disapproval, and expanding our vision past the scrutiny of our first reaction is how we remove the obstacles that stigma creates.

Why is that person so irritable, so sad all the time? Why are they always late, why do they work so slowly, why won’t they drive on a highway, why are they so moody and unpredictable, why do they always cancel at the last minute? Psychiatric conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic disorder can ravage lives. Sufferers are burdened not only by their troubling symptoms, but also by the task of having to hide them assiduously for fear of being judged as weak, damaged, or self-indulgent. Going it alone often translates into never receiving treatment. The result is not good and sometimes it is even tragic. Treatment changes lives — for the sufferer, their loved ones, coworkers, community — and ultimately we all benefit.

On Oct. 9, the grassroots college mental health group, Active Minds (, dedicated to “changing the conversation about mental health,” is getting right to the heart of the matter by calling for A National Day Without Stigma. The objective of National Day Without Stigma, according to Active Minds, is to “eliminate the shame and discrimination surrounding mental health disorders by creating communities of understanding, support, and help-seeking.”

Who needs help?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

“An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.”

But who will benefit from eliminating stigma?

We all will.

Changing the conversation about mental health means making care for mental health as matter of fact as going to get treatment for asthma or a broken leg. What good sense that makes. But even those of us who aren’t currently suffering from mental health problems stand to gain.

What creates stigma? Distance, and distance is a two-way street.

As part of our primitive survival gear, we are primed to see what’s different as something wrong, as a threat from which we need to protect or defend ourselves — something from which we need to create distance. But how out of whack is our sensor? How is a person who is different actually a threat to us? The more we can accurately read who is friend and who is foe, the better off we will all be. The greatest threat to us is not someone else’s behavior that we don’t understand; the greatest threat is shutting down our compassion. Here are some ideas to keep it going.

Change Your Intention: From Judgment to Understanding

When we ask “Why is that person doing that?” our intention is to assign blame for what we believe the person ought not be doing. Go in as a student, knowing that you don’t know the answers, but you’d like to find out.

Collect Accurate Data: Go for Neutral Observation

How do we get to compassion when we are starting from a point of criticism or judgment? Through the process of non-judgmental observation. By simply reporting neutrally what you are seeing, without scrutiny or criticism, our understanding of the situation changes and it makes sense.

Zoom Out: Look at the Context

Rather than jumping to conclusions based on isolated behavior, zoom out from the particulars to consider the reasons/factors why a person is doing what they do. Challenge yourself to look at the larger context.

Show the Seams: Make Room for Honesty

“How are you?”


How many times have we answered that way when we are anything but fine? We don’t need to launch into a therapy session in response to the “how are you?” question, but what if we made room day to day to reveal the not-so-perfect seams in our lives? Room for the rough edges, for the “not my best day,” or even the “actually terrible, at the moment.” Notice how you feel better not worse when you let the truth out. Taking the pressure off the need to pretend, we create a culture of safety, and we all function better in that space.

Let’s all make a difference. If you yourself are not currently one of the more than 26 percent of the population suffering with a psychiatric disorder, certainly someone you care about is.

Let’s commit to moving past stigma; working together, we can make it happen. We are the stewards not only of our own mental health and well-being — we are stewards for each other. It’s the great community clean up effort; please, join in.

Join the conversation at

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.


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