Fighting the Mental Illness Stigma

Let’s Make it Okay to Ask For Help

The problem with the stigma around mental illness is huge! For example the media promotes a view of mental illness that is inaccurate and offensive to those affected, their families and friends. Inappropriate reporting and representation of suicide in the media is also hurtful and stigmatising, and can be harmful to those who are vulnerable. Likewise balanced, responsible and accurate reporting can contribute to a more open and welcoming society. Taking action to reduce stigma, then, is important for lots of reasons.It stops too many people from getting help early when it’s most effective. With a little extra knowledge, you and I, whether we have a mental illness or not,  can help challenge the stigma, prevent a great deal of suffering and help more people live richer, healthier lives.

What is stigma?

There are many forms of stigma in society, some are based on negative attitudes or beliefs, others are due to a lack of understanding or misinformation.Stigma can lead to a lack of support or empathy for people with a mental illness, leaving people embarrassed, misunderstood, and marginalised. Stigma can cause more than hurt feelings. It can result in symptoms being ignored, lead to poor recovery and a lower quality of life due to isolation.Sometimes mental illness is given a stigma that tries to label people affected as ‘scary’, ‘comical’ or ‘incompetent’. If you’re living with a mental illness, stigma is one more stress you don’t need. In fact, some people say that the effects of stigma and prejudice can be as distressing as the symptoms of their illness.The World Health Organisation defines stigma as: A major cause of discrimination and exclusion: it affects people‘s self-esteem, helps disrupt their family relationships and limits their ability to socialize and obtain housing and jobs.It hampers the prevention of mental health disorders, the promotion of mental well-being and the provision of effective treatment and care. It also contributes to the abuse of human rights.

Labelling people by their illness

If a person is described as ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘depressive’, rather than someone being treated for schizophrenia or depression, it labels them by their illness and gives the impression that this defines their life. This use of labels is often upsetting as it classifies someone by their symptoms. A person may feel the label ties them to a negative stereotype that ignores their personal strengths.Misusing medical termsMedia articles sometimes include statements such as ‘the Minister’s attitude to this policy is totally schizophrenic – some days he’s for it, other days he won’t have a bar of it.’This promotes the stereotype that schizophrenia includes ‘split personality’, when in reality it is a medical condition that affects the functioning of the brain and a person’s ability to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.It is incorrect to casually describe behaviour as ‘bipolar’ or ‘obsessive compulsive,’ for example. Misusing medical terminology is not only inaccurate it is also misleading. This can result in community misunderstanding of mental illness symptoms, or cause a person to experience ‘self-stigma’. Self-stigma can affect self-esteem and confidence, or make people reluctant to accept diagnosis or treatment.

Mental Health Issues Are More Common than Most People Think

Mental illness is as prevalent in the world. as people diagnosed with cancer. One in five adults suffers from mental illness in any given year, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in the US. According to Beyond Blue one in four young people has a mental illness. Breakdown: 26.4% of Australians aged 16 to 24 currently have experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months.5 This figure includes young people with a substance use disorder. This is equivalent to 750,000 young people today.

The cost of unchecked mental illness – especially depression – is terribly high. The second leading cause of death for Americans between 15 and 24 is suicide.Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. Behaviour addictions, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse impair millions of people, some even before they are teenagers. Evidence suggests three in four adult mental health conditions emerge by age 24 and half by age 14. Breakdown: Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14 years and three fourths by age 24 years. These are staggering statistics not to be ignored and certainly not to be stigmatised.

Mental health issues can be life threatening, but they don’t have to be. The important thing is to address the illness early on.

There’s a terrible cost to the stigma about asking for help.  It keeps too many from learning how to recover mental health while the issues are the most manageable.

The (Too-) High Cost of the Stigma Around Mental Illness

You may suffer from a mental illness or know someone who does for example with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism or a phobia. About one in 25 adults suffers illness severe enough to interfere with life activities. But many more struggle with worry, self-esteem or troubling thoughts and emotions in near-invisible ways. Too often, it takes an emergency or a loss of life to get people to act.

The first sign that someone needs help dealing with a mental health issue probably won’t happen in the therapist’s office. It’s going to come out in the real world, in familiar ways:

  • “Oh, I don’t need help, I’m strong enough. I can do it on my own.”
  • “You’re weak if you ask for help.”
  • “People will think I’m crazy if I go to therapy.”
  • “In my family, I was taught that you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
  • “I want to handle this on my own.”
  • “People will think I’m a failure.”
  • “My problems are not big enough.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”

This is the stigma talking.  These expressions challenge us as therapists to help people recognize stigma (negative beliefs around mental health issues) when they see it.

By de-stigmatising mental illness, we can foster new attitudes of compassion, openness, and acceptance toward mental health issues. Too many people don’t get help because they dismiss the problem, don’t know what action to take, or are too ashamed to ask. It does not have to be this way.

How to Take a Stand for Mental Health:  Simple Ways to Fight the Stigma

What can  mental health professionals do to raise awareness of negative attitudes about mental illness?

First, they need to challenge the idea that “normal people shouldn’t need therapy.”

They need to stand up for the idea that seeking counselling or therapy is just good self-care — it’s not only for people in crisis. It’s for each of us, any time we want to give ourselves the gift of wellness.

We can turn attention to the importance of mental health and join with those who call for openness about mental illness without shame.  Many celebrities have shown the way by lending their voices in interviews and on social media.  Health Professionals are turning their focus to emotional well-being, making it an issue they promote and advocate publicly.

We can share what they say.

On our own, we can promote the idea that seeking therapy is actually not a sign of weakness, but of strength.  It takes more courage to go to therapy and deal with the issues than it does to turn away from it.

We can foster a better attitude toward mental health issues and those with mental illness, and be more open about our own needs when the time comes.

Helping Change the Conversation Around Mental Health

Imagine living in a world where mental health and physical health are equally important. If you have a sore throat you go to the doctor because you want that to get better. If you’ve struggled with feeling depressed or anxious, or with panic attacks, or if some difficult issues happened in your life, you would find it just as easy to get help.

Like a cold or the flu, depression, anxiety, or any mental health condition isn’t something people choose. It’s something people have. There is no reason that caring for mental illness should be seen as different from managing diabetes, nutrition or any aspect of wellness.

Psychiatrists, Psychotherapist, Psychologists, and Counsellors can lend their voices as professionals, to help educate people and challenge negative thinking about mental health.

They can help spread the truth about what they know about mental illness — that it is not a choice. It’s a condition that touches millions of ordinary people. Untreated, it blights the lives of too many. Getting help is more than okay – it is important, respectable, courageous, and necessary.

Imagine if we could see the suicide rate go down, just by helping more people feel okay about getting help earlier on. We all can reduce the stigma against mental health by talking more openly about the importance emotional and mental well-being.

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