Updated: Mar 3, 2022
Have you felt you couldn’t share your overwhelming feelings or thoughts with other people, worried you will be judged? Do the words mental disorder conjure up images of people shouting out random things on buses? Are you tempted to wish that your loved one with depression just cheered up already?
Every single one of us is affected by society’s mental health stigma.
Mental health stigma affects us all in different ways.
Mental health stigma is a sense of negative, discriminating beliefs associated with mental health issues and the people dealing with these. While most of us are likely to have moved on from believing mental illness is caused by demons, the concept of mental health still makes many people feel uneasy or anxious.
Interestingly, studies have found that often individuals with mental disorders report experiencing the majority of stigma from people in their close interpersonal network, including family members and peers; rather than from strangers or acquaintances. This could come in form of direct discrimination, change or loss of friendships and family relationships, or a sense of mistrust, avoidance, unwarranted assumptions and condescending remarks. Such stigma not only prevents people from seeking help when they need it, but also holds us back from progress in society as a whole. Let’s start by looking at what drives this stigma.
The essence of mental health stigma is fear.
This fear comes in various forms. Here are just a few examples:
Lack of knowledge. We may not know much about mental disorders, other than what we have seen in movies or heard whispered nervously in social situations about “the crazy lady who lives down the road”. As a result, we may believe that people dealing with mental disorders are unpredictable, awkward, embarrassing or perhaps even dangerous. If we do not know how to engage with someone dealing with mental health issues, or even know what symptoms to expect, we tend to turn away in fear and avoidance. This ostracizes people and inevitably increases mental health stigma.
Worry it may happen to us. We may prefer to think of people with mental disorders as mentally weak. That if they had more strength, they could just think positive, pull themselves together, and get on with life (“just like everybody else”). By maintaining that people with mental health issues simply need to be stronger, we can feel in control and breathe more easily: We are unlikely to “catch it” as long as we stay on top of things. Unfortunately, often the methods used to stay on top of things involve suppressing negative feelings, ignoring stressful thoughts, and engaging in damaging behaviours to take the edge off; all of which make it more likely to develop mental health issues.
Misfiring brain chemistry. The biological disease model of mental health has greatly helped our scientific understanding of mental disorders by identifying physiological contributors. Putting things into a medical context permits improved treatment and can reduce mental health stigma by treating it like any other physical ailment. However, we should not over-rely solely on the disease model as environments and trauma play a significant role in mental disorders. Treating individuals with mental disorders as purely having issues with their brain chemistry can be quite dismissive of their lived experience; this can contribute to mental health stigma, especially for those who prefer not to be medicated.
Being exhausted. If you have a loved one who deals with a mental disorder, you may find yourself exhausted trying to help. Sometimes it can feel like pushing a heavy boulder up a hill only to find that one slip up causes the whole thing to tumble back down. There’s fear that things will never change, and often a sense of desperation: How much more can I take? It is important to acknowledge the strain of being supportive or in severe phases being a carer to someone with mental health issues. It’s okay to feel fatigued, lost, despaired and angry. We are all human and it hurts to see someone close to us struggle. Part of mental health awareness is to accept and understand these mixed feelings and address our own mental health needs when they arise; by ignoring our own mental health, for example in an attempt to “stay strong”, we inadvertently contribute to mental health stigma.
Mental health stigma increases mental health issues. Being discriminated for struggling with thoughts, feelings, and behaviours commonly leads to social isolation, low self-esteem and greater despair and helplessness. People stop seeking help when they need it most. Operating in a society where mental health stigma is prevalent is not conducive to anyone maintaining and supporting their mental well-being; whether you are dealing with mental health issues or not.
Every single one of us is affected by mental health stigma. Every single one of us is responsible for understanding why we have this mental health stigma.
Understanding is the first step for creating change. Are you ready to make that step?
Stay tuned for my next article that looks at how to change our mental health stigma. In the meantime, if you or someone you care about needs support through their struggle with mental health issues or stigma, get in touch on (852) 2521 4668 or firstname.lastname@example.org.