Experiencing mental health issues is actually very common. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1 in 5 children and adolescents have a mental health condition, depression affects 264 million people worldwide, and 800,000 people die by suicide every year. Therefore, the chance of you knowing someone experiencing mental health issues, such as a friend, family member or colleague, or you experiencing mental health issues yourself, is highly likely. With that in mind, it’s quite remarkable that stigma still surrounds mental health, resulting in people not seeking the support and intervention needed to address whatever it is they’re going through.
Stigma occurs when someone views someone else, or themselves, in a negative way because they have a personal trait or distinguishing characteristic that’s considered, or actually is, a disadvantage. In terms of mental illness, the fear and lack of understanding of mental health issues results in discrimination and prejudice, as well as shame and embarrassment. This can lead to discrimination which is quite direct, such as ridiculing, harming or making a negative comment about someone’s illness. It may also be indirect, wherein you avoid contact with someone experiencing mental health issues due to assumptions about the person, for instance that they may be violent, dangerous or unstable. Such stigma occurs in different contexts, including the workplace, families, peer groups and the wider community. It can result in enhanced distress, failure to seek out treatment, unemployment, unequal rights, and difficulty accessing healthcare, higher education and the judicial system.
With many local and international companies now introducing measures in the workplace to provide employees with support and guidance with regards to mental health, as well as initiatives taking place at a community and policy level, change is happening. However, there are things we can do as individuals to contribute to reducing stigma. Here are a few ideas:
- Educate yourself on mental health
Much of the negative rap related to mental health is based on a lack of knowledge. Whilst some people assume that people with mental health issues are violent or dangerous, the reality is that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. Furthermore, people develop mental health issues for various reasons, including genetics, excessive stress, childhood trauma, violence, abuse and injustice. We may all experience a mental illness at some point in our lives or may need to support and care for someone experiencing mental illness.
- Mind your language
Rather than using language which labels people with mental health issues, ensure that your language recognises that the illness doesn’t define the person. For instance, rather than saying ‘She’s schizophrenic’ you can say ‘She has schizophrenia’. Beware also of insensitive language which trivialises illnesses such as OCD or bipolar disorder. I often hear people referring to someone who’s moody as bipolar, or someone who likes to clean as having OCD. For someone really suffering from such conditions, these comments are hurtful and minimise the extent of their struggle.
- Show compassion for anyone experiencing mental health issues, including yourself
If someone has a physical illness, such as cancer or diabetes, we tend to be incredibly sensitive and understanding. Why should physical illnesses be acceptable and shame-free whilst mental illnesses are seen as signs of weakness or shame-inducing? Examine your own feelings towards mental health and challenge these. Where do they originate from? Do you really think they’re valid and accurate nowadays with your current knowledge?
- Be honest and open about mental health
I often meet clients who hide their mental health issues from family, friends and colleagues because they’re embarrassed, scared to be seen as weak, and fear the consequences of the truth emerging. If you suspect someone close to you is experiencing mental health issues, check in on them. Ask them how you can support them. If you’ve experienced mental health issues yourself, sharing your own experiences may make it easier for others to do the same and help them feel less alone.
- Seek treatment and support
Whether it’s you experiencing mental health issues or someone close to you, don’t let fear of being labelled stop you seeking treatment. Failure to seek support can not only worsen symptoms but lead to further complications and distress. Treatment can help you identify what’s wrong and help you manage your symptoms, allowing you to continue working, studying and living your life. You may seek the services of a psychotherapist or counsellor, or look out for support groups so as to enable you to meet other people going through similar experiences as yourself.
Whether or not you’ve been touched by mental illness, reducing the stigma around it is incredibly important so as to create a society which is more inclusive. The reality is that mental health issues have always existed and will continue to do so. Therefore, by reducing the shame and stigma attached to them we can ensure the right help and support is provided to those who need it.