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  • Writer's pictureScott R. Mote, Esq.

How Judges Can Help Decrease Mental Health Stigma

For millennia, society treated people who suffered from mental health disorders as criminals. In the Middle Ages, mental illnesses were believed to be punishments from God, where people were burned at the stake or put in penitentiaries where they were chained to their beds. During the Age of Enlightenment, the mentally ill were put in institutions and mental illnesses began to be treated like other common problems. As the years went by, people became more aware of these disorders and did their best to try to treat them. Now, I see billboards, yard signs, mental health awareness posters in workplaces, and social media campaigns that say, “You are not alone,” or “It’s ok to ask for help.” This definitely creates more awareness around mental health, and I am impressed with the movement. We have come a long way in recognizing and treating mental illness, but, unfortunately, discrimination of the mentally ill is still pervasive. We still have more work to do.




More than half of people with mental illness do not get help. The ones who do not seek help are concerned about being treated differently or are afraid that they will lose their jobs.

 

Given your strong credibility and respectability as a judge, you are in a powerful position to influence public perception of mental illness and related stigma. Here’s how you can help.

 

Increase education and awareness of and access to proper treatment

The workplace has a tremendous impact on personal identity, self-esteem and social recognition; therefore, it is important to formulate a plan that addresses mental health and substance use disorder issues and make sure the plan is well-known at your court. Your plan should express your commitment to leading a healthy workplace and help leaders identify signs and symptoms and how to respond accordingly. Create a culture where wellness and access to help is encouraged and accessible.

 

Recognize the signs and symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a mental health issue in yourself, let alone in someone else, can be a challenge. Early warning signs may be difficult to identify, but you may notice an individual struggling with a mental health issue experiencing:


  • Increase in drug or alcohol use

  • Withdrawing from normal activities

  • Change in sleep habits

  • Feeling hopeless

  • Low energy

  • Uncharacteristic emotions

  • Confusion/forgetfulness

  • Normal activities are a challenge

  • Thinking of harming oneself

  • Hearing voices or delusions

 

Often, individuals feel uncomfortable or unsure of how to bring up their concerns to a colleague they suspect may be struggling; it can be a bit of an awkward conversation to have with a coworker, regardless of how well you know the individual, but it is possible, and it is our responsibility to try to help.

 

Think before you speak

As judges, you communicate daily—with fellow judges, attorneys, people in the courtroom, the public. When you speak, people listen. They respect your opinions and they take notice of how you communicate. Judges at times need to speak about mental health illness and substance use disorders, whether you are speaking about a person living with one of these disorders or about the topic in general. One way judges can help decrease the stigma of mental health illness and substance use disorder is to learn how to use the proper terminology for these disorders.

 

When we say hurtful words such as cripple, retard, insane asylum, addict, junkie, crackhead, druggie, etc., we are using words that display judgment, shame and blame.

 

Carefully choose words that display a non-judgmental interpretation. Substance use disorder used to be called “substance abuse.” When you think about the term “abuse,” it is usually coupled with other types of abuse, such as child abuse, domestic abuse, and physical abuse. In these types of abuse, there is a person who is causing direct harm to another person. When you say “substance abuse,” it makes one believe that the person is committing a crime. But when you label addiction as “substance use disorder,” it conveys that this is a disorder that needs to be treated medically. When you label someone as a substance abuser it encompasses the whole person, which defines him or her by dysfunction. In contrast, the “substance use disorder” tag simply describes one problem, rather than an entire identity.

 

Some other words that we might say in our everyday language can convey stigma. For example, one might say “That’s crazy, psycho, insane.” Instead, say “That’s wild, bizarre, eccentric.” Instead of saying “That drives me nuts” or “That makes me crazy,” simply say “It annoys me.” This helps remove negative words that are sometimes associated with MH/SUD.

 

Lead by example

When others in the profession see you taking control of your life and not letting emotions take over, they will look up to you and want to follow in your footsteps. When they see that you are an advocate for mental health awareness in the workplace and the profession, it helps others understand that it is ok to ask for help. Persons of trust can have very high credibility, because they themselves have been affected by these illnesses and can report first‐hand experiences and comment on treatments.

 

Research has shown that knowing or having contact with someone with a mental illness is one of the best ways to reduce stigma. People who share their stories can have a positive impact, because, when individuals know someone with mental illness, it can become more relatable and less intimidating.

 

As a judge, you help people, you are a leader in your community, and you can help minimize the stigma of mental health. Learn the facts about mental health, be cognizant of them, and help yourself or someone you think is struggling. Be quick to dispel something that is not true. Most importantly, teach others to treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as they would anybody else.

 

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Judicial Advisory Group, a peer-based confidential assistance group that helps judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. For more information, go to www.ohiolap.org/judges or call (800) 348-4343.


If you find yourself stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, seek help. The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program helps lawyers, judges and law students manage life's stresses. OLAP has saved lives, careers, marriages and families. All inquiries are confidential. (800) 348-4343 / ohiolap.org

 

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