Stress affects us all – from studying for exams, to managing job responsibilities, to enduring acute traumatic events or systemic stigma and discrimination. The harmful effects of stress on our physical and mental well-being are well documented. And research has generated many evidence-based interventions to help people cope with stress.
But oftentimes, mental health stigma prevents people from seeking the care that they need. They might fear being labeled as “weak,” or “broken,” or “crazy” by friends, family and co-workers. Sometimes, the stressful event can induce deep psychological trauma, negatively altering people's mental capacity to recognize or articulate the insidious impact of the traumatic experience. I observed these experiences in my research examining the psychosocial issues among returned survivors of human trafficking. Many of the young women I interviewed shared how they struggled to make sense of what had happened, and the range of emotions they were experiencing.
Despite the challenges, there is hope. For example, the women who were residing in the shelters with other trafficked survivors were able to share their stories (if they wanted to) with people who had similar experiences and backgrounds. These shared lived experiences can help people validate their own experiences and form emotional connections with others, which research has shown can promote recovery and even post-traumatic growth. Thus, promoting and creating safe spaces in which people can share their lived experiences can be a powerful tool to reduce mental health stigma.
An example of such a tool is Photovoice, a research methodology that engages vulnerable and marginalized communities in a process of exploring – and advocating for – their lived experiences through photos and narratives. For instance, Photovoice has been successfully used to reduce stigma against individuals with serious mental illness among healthcare providers.
May is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and the theme of this year’s campaign is #MoreThanEnough. In addition to highlighting the mental health tools and resources that exist, we also acknowledge the tremendous courage of every individual who’s facing mental health challenges to continue on: Because your lived experiences matter.
PhuongThao Le, PhD, MPH
Research Scientist in the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences