Collective Trauma and Its Impact on the Stigma of Mental Illness

By Juliet Kuehnle, MS, NCC, LCMHCS

For the first time in our lifetimes, we have all experienced a collective trauma — together. Yes, there have been different layers, factors, and hardships from person to person, but at the foundation, we have all experienced uncertainty, fear, and isolation. This has allowed us all to look around at each other and own our struggles more openly. We started to let go of the rote “I am fine, how are you?” and share more honestly. I want the shift in dialogue around mental health that we are experiencing in the pandemic to not just be a moment. It can lead to true change in how we feel about mental illness! 

Mental Health Stigma 

There has been a stigma around mental illness forever. There’s public stigma which is negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about it, self-stigma which is the negative attitudes or internalized shame that people with mental illness have about themselves, and institutional stigma which is more systemic and when there are intentional or unintentional limits of opportunities for people with mental illness. This all gets perpetuated by our society’s dialogue and how media tends to represent mental illness by depicting characters that are negative or violent. The reason this matters is that it leads to more shame, reduced hope, lower self-esteem, an increase in symptoms, and a reduced likelihood of seeking or staying in treatment. The good news, though, is there is a shift as of late and I believe this is because of what we have all experienced in the pandemic. 

The impact on our mental health from these past years is going to continue to unfold as things bounce back. Living in this period of isolation goes against how we are wired. A lot of it has also mimicked social anxiety and depressive isolation, so we are going to have to unlearn things, challenge ourselves differently, and pick up some pieces. I believe we can get there more efficiently and productively if we continue to allow each other the language for this and continue to be open. 

It Is Okay to Not Be Okay 

If you take nothing else from this, remember that it is okay to not be okay! My mission is to get people claiming it and having no issue saying, “yep, I go to therapy.” Because – spoiler alert- most of the people you know do! We all have some sort of struggle or negative experience and even if it’s not a clinical diagnosis, we all know stress, fear, or dysfunction. We tend to have ideas about what certain mental illnesses “look like” causing us to question it in others or even ourselves. You never know what someone is experiencing or how it presents, so there is no room for judgment or assumption.  

Let’s continue to speak out and share our stories! That’s why I started my “Who You Callin’ Crazy?!” podcast (click here to listen) because when you know someone who struggles with something and you hear them talk about it, it becomes less scary and more real and relatable. Try to educate yourself and others so that you can respond to misperceptions or negative comments and point out when you see or hear something stigmatizing. Be conscious of your language. That’s why I named the podcast what I did — to take back the stigmatizing language people use because words matter. Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. Just consider the comparison between how people are treated with cancer versus someone with mental illness. And lastly, normalize treatment and getting support. It’s okay and encouraged to not walk through this alone. 

About the Author

Juliet Kuehnle is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor and the owner of Sun Counseling and Wellness in Charlotte, NC. She is on a mission to end the stigma and to elevate and normalize dialogue around mental health. Juliet also hosts a podcast called Who You Callin’ Crazy?! She conducts interviews with interesting people who share their experiences, struggles, life lessons, and tips for balanced living. Find these conversations wherever you stream podcasts and find other therapy thoughts and mental health tips on her social media @yepigototherapy