BLOG: Stigma Surrounding Mental Health
The current pandemic has highlighted just how widespread mental health issues are today, and as a result, mental health is being addressed on a much larger scale. But due to the stigma associated with mental illness, a lack of awareness, and limited access to professional help, mental health still remains a taboo subject.
One of the biggest obstacles for people struggling and/or recovering from mental ill-health is confronting the prejudice and negative attitudes held by society. Misconceptions coupled with blame can make it incredibly difficult for people to seek out the support they need. The far-reaching negative impact of mental health-related stigma has been described by those with mental illness as ‘worse than the illness itself.’
Whether you are experiencing this yourself or seeing the disparaging effects on a loved one, colleague or neighbour, stigma can cause isolation, fear and hopelessness; It can lead individuals to hide their mental health symptoms, fail to seek professional help or detach themselves from their community. No one should be subjected to discrimination simply for having an illness, which is why it is so important that we work together to challenge inaccurate stereotypes and remind people that they are not alone. It is only through deliberate and mindful actions that we can make a change.
What can we do to help reduce stigma?
Educate ourselves and others:
According to NHS England, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem, which means someone you know may be struggling with mental illness. We must continue to educate one another. Learning the facts about mental illness and how to begin a dialogue on these sensitive issues is the best place to start. So, we thought we would begin by addressing some of the most common and damaging misconceptions:
Myth: “People are faking it or doing it for attention”
Fact: No one would pretend to have a physical illness, so why would anyone pretend to be mentally ill? Although the specific symptoms of mental health conditions may not always be visible to the untrained eye, it does not mean that they do not exist. It can be challenging to relate to people with an existing mental health condition, but that does not mean that their condition is not real.
Myth: “You can’t recover from mental health problems”
Fact: This is far from true. More than any treatment, having a support system is intrinsic to getting better after being diagnosed with a mental health problem. Friends and family can be important influences to help someone get the treatment and services they need. Treating people with respect instead of labelling them on the basis of their diagnosis is a crucial step towards helping them.
Myth: “Mental illness is a sign of personal failing”
Fact: Just like any other disease, mental illness can happen to anyone. It has nothing to do with the person being lazy or weak. In fact, several environmental and biological factors often contribute to mental health issues, such as: trauma or a history of abuse, family history of mental health problems, and biological factors such as genetics, physical illness or injury. People suffering from mental health issues can get better and many recover completely.
See the person, not the condition:
‘Stigma’ is when someone sees you in a negative way because of your mental illness.
‘Discrimination’ is when someone treats you in a negative way because of your mental illness.
It is so important that we prevent societal constructs from framing people in a negative way for having an illness that is beyond their control.
Try to avoid using slang and labels, such as: “psycho, demented, crazy, lunatic”
Having a mental illness does not mean that you are ‘crazy’. It means you are vulnerable. It means you have an illness with challenging symptoms. While mental illness might alter your thinking, destabilize your moods or skew your perception of reality, this simply means that you are human and are susceptible to sickness and illness, the same as any other person.
Try to use respectful, person-first language. For example:
- “He is living with bipolar disorder” rather than “He is bipolar”
- “She has depression” rather than “She is depressed”
- “They died by suicide” rather than “they committed suicide”
Many of us are unaware that we can be daily reinforcers of stigma. Whether it was that time you told someone to “cheer up,” “snap out of it,” or “be more positive” when you didn’t know that they were struggling with depression. Or the time that you avoided a neighbour because you didn’t know how to ask them how their son, who left school due to schizophrenia, was doing. Or the time you crossed the street to avoid having a conversation with a friend whose daughter had recently died by suicide. Having a better understanding of mental illness can provide you with the knowledge and tools to reach out in a more empathetic and informed manner in future.
Connect with others:
Mental illness is sometimes called the ‘no casserole’ disease – when someone is diagnosed with a ‘physical’ ailment, we offer our support and encouragement. When the illness is mental, however, we all too often turn away, just when we’re needed most – in other words, people struggling with a mental illness are less likely to be showered with ‘casseroles’ and sentiments from their family, colleagues and neighbours. This avoidance extends into the workplace, community activities, social events, and family gatherings. But patients with mental illness deserve the same kind of support, sympathy, and understanding we give to others who are undergoing an acute or chronic physical illness. If we can begin to at least blur the lines between the two, we will make significant strides in creating a stigma-free community.
Positive and hopeful attitudes of family, friends, employers, service providers and members of the community are critical to ensuring quality of life for people with mental illness and supporting recovery.
- Offer support to people who are struggling with their mental health, whether that’s from yourself, a healthcare professional or in-person and online support groups
- Be an active listener and let people tell their story
- Show empathy, even if you don’t fully understand the person’s experience
- Talk openly about stigma and challenge misconceptions when you hear them
- Share (well-informed) knowledge and facts about mental illness with others
- Start the conversation
We must continue to involve ourselves in the conversation surrounding mental health online. A small conversation about mental health has the power to make a big difference. Time to Talk Day 2021 takes place on Thursday 3rd-Friday 4th February this year in the form of a virtual festival – a great opportunity to get the nation talking about mental health. There are also lots of other campaigns you can get involved with later in the year, including: Samaritans’ ‘Talk to Us’ campaign, ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Be Free campaign, and many more. At times like this, open conversations about mental health are now more important than ever.
- Mental Health First Aid
Our role as a community is to create environments and tools that promote positive wellbeing and cement the fact that we are all in this together; no one is on their own and help is always available. This aligns with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s hopes to create a society where everyone’s mental health matters. MHFA is an internationally recognised training course which teaches people to spot the symptoms of mental health issues, offer initial help and guide a person towards support. Oakleaf provides MHFA training both in-person and online. To find out more, please click here.
- Share your experience
Sharing your own experience of mental illness (if you have experienced it) can help dispel myths and encourage others to do the same. Mental illness is not something shameful that needs to be hidden. We encourage you to share your stories so others can see that they’re not alone in the challenges that they are facing.
Our clients’ testimonials and stories:
Why kindness matters:
Know that help is out there:
If you or someone you know is struggling, please make use of the resources below:
Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours)
Mental Health Foundation: Covid-19 resource library
Mind: How to Find a Therapist
Citizens Advice: 03444 111 444 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)
Surrey Safe Havens: 6-11pm, 365 days a year
Here at Oakleaf we will continue to do all we can to improve the lives of people managing mental ill-health in Surrey, to promote awareness during these difficult times, and to create a stigma-free community where mental health matters.
If you are able to make a donation to Oakleaf and help fund vital mental health and wellbeing support, please click here. To all those who already support Oakleaf – we can’t thank you enough.
Henderson, C and Thornicroft, G (2009) Stigma and discrimination in mental illness: time to change. The Lancet 373, 1928–1930.