What is the stigma surrounding mental health – and how can we help fight it?

 Stigma, by definition, is usually a negative stereotype. If you are suffering from mental illness or know somebody who does, you will most likely have come across the term before. Many mentally ill people face stigma on a daily basis and it is often named as the main cause that would prevent them from getting better or finding help. So what exactly is this stigma that seems to be so prevalent whenever we talk about Mental Health?

Stigma comes in many forms, sometimes we may not even recognise some as such. Some forms we have internalised simply by growing up in an environment where Mental Health was never that much of a priority. The idea that we all have to be “tough” is one of these forms. Crying or reaching  out are quickly seen as a weakness and not something that should be perfectly normal to do. As a result of this, many of those suffering from mental disorders may feel like they are a constant burden on other people, they may isolate themselves and be too afraid to open up to anyone about how they actually feel. This of course just makes the whole situation many times worse and bottling up all these feelings could lead to potentially more drastic actions.

Another way that stigma manifests itself is in the believe that certain mental illnesses should have a certain look or that people are expected to act a certain way when they present themselves as mentally ill. Phrases such as “Oh but you don’t look depressed” or “But you have nothing to be depressed about, you are just lazy!” are very quickly thrown around and the impact these phrases can have is often detrimental. It is an awful feeling, opening up to someone, only to have your feelings invalidated like that. It hurts to be told that one doesn’t fit into a certain category enough to be deemed worthy of getting help. This may stop people from reaching out in the first place and it may even prevent those who have reached out from getting help in the future. Furthermore, this kind of stereotyping can have a multitude of negative effects on a person’s work and family life as well. There are certain jobs where people are simply expected to be “normal” and to not suffer from any mental illness. This is a particularly dangerous game to play, as jobs can be very stressful and not being able to be completely honest about one’s struggle can only further increase this stress.Due to this stigma people may even be at risk of losing their job should they be open about their mental health struggles.

Social isolation is another way of stigmatising people suffering from mental disorders. People may distance themselves from a mentally ill person, they may not want to associate with them. This may go as far as not allowing a person to provide childcare, or refusing to date a person with a mental illness. This discrimination often leads to the person then internalising these stereotypes and turning them towards themselves, to the point where they may genuinely believe that they are unworthy of social contact or even just acceptance.

 

It is safe to say that the stigma surrounding Mental Health can have disastrous effects for those suffering. It may drive them into further isolation, it may prevent them from speaking about their mental illness and getting help. People are often too scared to open up about their feelings, because they fear not being taken seriously or being made fun of. Fighting this stigma and changing the way we view and speak of mental illness is essential for creating more accessible help for mentally ill people in the future. But how exactly can we do this?

 

There are a multitude of ways how you can help fight the stigma surrounding mental health on a daily basis.

  • One of them would be to believe a person when they talk openly about how they may feel. No matter how strange it may sound or even if you can’t understand what they are talking about, believe them.
  • Learn to listen without judgement and refrain from having to give your input to everything. Often mentally ill people just want to talk to let it all out. Allow them to speak freely.
  • Ask people how they really are and reassure them that what they may be feeling is completely valid. Don’t isolate yourself from someone just because they have a mental illness. Offer support where you can and if you don’t know how to help them, let them know and offer to help them look for someone who can.
  •  Refrain from using descriptors such as “depressed”, “anxious” or “OCD” in everyday situations where you may just be feeling a bit down or nervous. By using these words in the wrong context you are adding to the stigma that already exists by effectively invalidating the feelings and experiences of those who genuinely suffer from mental illness.
  • If someone tells you about their mental illness, educate yourself on the subject. Read about possible symptoms, learn about ways that you can help them, let them know you are there.

 If you see a person being stigmatised, or if you experience stigmatisation yourself, be brave enough to challenge those views. Open a line of discussion to help educate those that might not understand the impact stigmatisation can have for mentally ill people. It may not be everyone’s intention and they may just not know how to react in certain situations. Talk, talk, talk! Never be afraid to speak your own truth!

 There is still a long way to go when it comes to fighting the stigma that surrounds Mental Health, but I believe that open discussions and raising awareness are one of the many ways that we all can use to help work towards a stigma free future for mentally ill people.

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