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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Mental Health Stigma

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

“I would rather be dying of terminal cancer”.

Take a moment and grasp the despair, pain, loneliness and misery hidden in this sentence. Imagine the state of someone who would utter such a thing and actually mean it.

I didn’t just make it up. These are real words, this is what a client recovering from mental illness recently told me, with tears in their eyes. This blog post is for them, and anyone else who suffers in silence.

“I would rather be dying of terminal cancer. At least then people would be sympathetic towards me, they would consider me strong for fighting against that disease- unlike now, that they just avoid me or consider me a lesser human being”.

Isn't this heartbreaking?

Despite the fact that we have really come a long way with regards to mental health, and we are living in an age of prevalent information and easy access to knowledge, stigma is still widespread and a very significant obstacle in mental health being as widely accepted as physical health is. It's crucial to stand against it. Mental health should not be a taboo topic.

Presentations of Stigma

We can’t pretend it is not there. It really is, and it hides in small and everyday situations and scenarios.

Someone taking antidepressants might carefully hide them away in a cupboard when they have friends visiting, but would you do the same for cough syrup or cardiovascular medication? No. That’s stigma.

Another person might be struggling long with anxiety, but avoids to schedule an appointment with a psychologist because they live in a small community and are sure they are going to be seen, and what will that say about them? So they don’t go, and they keep suffering. That’s stigma.

A girl admits that she suffers from depression, and her friend told her to “just think positive and snap out of it already”. That’s stigma.

A man has finally taken the step to start therapy in order to deal with mental health issues. They have to take time off work to attend his therapy appointments, but makes up a lie as his reason to need time off work instead, because he thinks he would risk losing his job if his boss found out he goes to a psychologist. That’s stigma.

A woman has a mental illness diagnosis, but avoids disclosing it to anyone out of fear that people will think she’s crazy. She has to carry the burden by herself. That’s stigma.

A woman suffering from mental illness is in treatment, in order to recover. She lets her friend know about her diagnosis and since then, her friend avoids her and never even calls her anymore. She feels lonely and really sad. That’s stigma.

Effects of Stigma and Self-Stigma

Stigma has many faces and appears unpredictably. It manifests even in cases when you really wouldn’t expect it to, and has several severe implications.

Stereotypes about mental illness as well as ignorance about such issues lead to discrimination, which subsequently worsens stigma even more.

Yet the most debilitating effect of stigma is the damage it inflicts on the self-worth of the individual itself.

Then we are talking about internalized stigma or self-stigma.

It refers to the internalization or absorption of negative attitudes and perceptions about mental illness. It is a situation in which the individual thinks of themselves as less worthy, less intelligent, less capable, generally “less” as compared to others.

It leads to isolation, lower self-esteem and distorted self-image, which in turn make it more likely for the individual to refrain from assuming an active role in various areas of life.

Probably the most significant effect of self-stigma is that it makes it less likely for the individual to seek proper treatment for their condition, out of concern of what others may think of them and intense shame.

It makes perfect sense. Those who are socially stigmatized are logically more likely to develop a sense of shame for aspects of their stigmatized identity, when all those people need is confidence that they are able to overcome their mental illness and return to their previous levels of function in their everyday life.

When you consider that seeking treatment as well as overtaking activities out of your comfort zone are both crucial for overcoming mental illness, it is easy to realize that self-stigma perpetuates mental illness, both directly and indirectly.

Self-stigma is what makes such desperate and dark thoughts possible, as the one where a terrible and often fatal physical illness is much preferred than the recovery from a mental illness.

How to Fight Against Stigma

Given the devastating implications of mental health stigma, it is important to fight against it.

But how?

Since it stems from fear of the unknown and different, ignorance and misconceptions, a definite way against it is information and education about what mental health is and what mental illnesses actually mean.

There are a lot of myths around mental illnesses, such as the distorted belief that they are not that common.

Get Informed: Facts about Mental Illness

  • It is calculated that 26% of adults may have a diagnosable mental illness

  • 10% of young people will ever experience a major depressive episode

  • 53.3 % of people with depression would refrain from disclosing their diagnosis due to perceptions that it is risky

  • Around 20% of children and adolescents worldwide have mental disorders or mental health issues

  • Mental disorders and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29 years old.

  • Mental disorders are important risk factors for physical diseases too

  • As opposed to the myth that people with a mental illness are violent and unpredictable, in reality only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to mental illness. In contrast, people with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent acts rather than perpetrators.

  • Prevention of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders involves addressing the prevalent risk factors that can lead to mental illness. Promoting emotional well-being and educating around mental health can lead to very positive outcomes.

  • Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment

  • People with a mental illness can’t just snap out of it by thinking more positive or seeing the bright side of life. Such a thing is literally not possible, and such statements actually worsen the condition of people with a mental illness.

  • Eating disorders, and in specific anorexia nervosa, has the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders. In fact, the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death for females aged 15-24 years old. Without treatment, 20% of people with a serious eating disorder die. Also, for most people with anorexia nervosa, it is not possible to “just start eating”. It is really not as straightforward as this.

What More To Do Against Stigma

As previously underlined, information and psychoeducation about mental health is a way to reduce stigma.

  • Be an advocate of mental health

This can involve something as simple as engaging with social media posts on mental health topics. I know many people may feel ashamed or vulnerable to do so, but the truth is that by engaging with relevant content, you may make it more accessible to someone who actually needs to read it. Not only that, but by doing so, you reduce the shame surrounding this topic. So don’t hesitate to promote mental health related content. You never know who it can further reach, as a result of your action.

  • Compassion

If you know someone who is struggling with mental health issues, be compassionate, open and empathetic. Lend an open ear. You never know what someone else may be going through, or how difficult it may be for them to open up with regards to such an issue. You also don’t know what difference your supportive attitude may make to someone else’s life.

  • Community involvement

Getting involved with community actions and seeking peer support can be a great aid, both if you are the one struggling with mental health concerns, or if you know someone who does. Mental health is as important as physical health. Encourage reaching out and connecting with others, since isolation can severely affect mental health.

  • Perceptions of mental health

More often than not, prevention is regarded as vital for the promotion of physical health. The same applies to mental health too. Don’t wait till it is too late to check on your mental health. Seek treatment and encourage a proactive attitude to your friends and family too.

  • Person-first language

The way you speak matters, and it can play a huge role in the reduction of stigma. For example, rather than saying “a mentally ill person”, say “a person with a mental illness”. Even if you do have a mental disorder diagnosis, remember that you are not your diagnosis. You are way more than your diagnosis. Your diagnosis may be a part of you, but it does not define you as a whole.

  • Speak out

Don’t be afraid to talk about your mental health. Yet it is important to do so strategically, since unfortunately not everyone can be accepting and non-judgemental of such issues. Strategic disclosure to others that you perceive as open and supportive can offer great relief, as well as inspire others to be more open about their mental health, too.

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