It seems fitting to round up Mental Health month by focusing on the stigma that surrounds mental health. There is a lot we can do to make it easier for everyone if we tackle the issue of stigma.
What is stigma?
Stigma entails negative attitudes or discrimination against an individual or group based on a characteristic such as a mental illness, medical condition, or disability. People with mental illness encounter systemic, cultural, social, and interpersonal stigma and discrimination about their mental illness.
What is the harm of stigma?
According to the World Health Organisation:
Stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion: it affects people‘s self-esteem, helps disrupt their family relationships and limits their ability to socialise 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.
Stigma surrounding mental illness can lead to less support or empathy, resulting in people being embarrassed, misunderstood, and marginalised. Stigma thrives on silence. For illnesses that make you feel like you are alone, silence surrounding mental illness can have severe consequences.
Self-stigma is when we internalise the stigma and it has a huge emotional toll on a person. It affects self-esteem, self-efficacy and perspective on life, creates shame and embarrassment, and stops people from talking about their experience and seeking treatment.
The longer you hold off talking about a stigmatised issue, the bigger the problem gets and the bigger the recovery. We need to be able to start talking about an issue when it first appears, rather than waiting for it to snowball. There is more help available than just doctors – we may not need a doctor if we start talking about it early with our family and friends.
When we no longer have stigma surrounding a condition, it makes it easier to reach out, have conversations about it and get help – without the insecurity, the whispered conversations, the intense vulnerability, and the possibility of judgment. No one needs that on top of what they are already experiencing.
“I held back on asking for help for my mental health: Because of the stigma around mental illness. Because of self-stigma, I thought that I failed by experiencing mental illness. Because from the outside, it looked like I had all the support and help that I needed. Because people were constantly telling me how strong I was, it didn’t allow space for me to be vulnerable and say I didn’t feel that way at all. Because how it looked on the outside was nothing like how it felt on the inside, so would I be believed?”
What can we do to help?
Stigma happens because of misunderstanding, and negative attitudes and beliefs. We need to educate ourselves on mental illness to know what happens when someone is unwell and how it can affect their behaviour. Learn the facts about mental health, mental illness and stigma. If we have knowledge, then we are prepared, and can avoid creating further stigma and harm.
We can then identify if stigma is happening around us and take action to stop it. Once you know what to see, you start noticing it everywhere. We need to call out when someone says something stigmatising that will make a situation harder for a person or cause silence. Try to stand up for people in a way that does not draw attention to them personally, but as an issue that a number of people are affected by and that needs to stop.
We need to reflect: is the situation inaccurate? Is it disrespectful towards people with mental illness? Is it outdated or derived from a historical belief?
We need to challenge the sensationalist media reporting. There is a lot of stigma portrayed in the media that people with mental illness are violent, when in fact it is the opposite. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. The media needs to stop describing crimes as a result of mental illness, and instead describe it for what it really is.
We need to be aware of our use of negative stereotypes, myths and harmful words such as crazy, OCD, psycho. People who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder do not want to hear you joke about how you clean your house or be organised, when their experiences are very different and debilitating. There are words to remove from our language which are related to crime, for example, ‘confessing’ to having a mental illness, ‘crook’ instead of unwell, ‘commit’ suicide instead of died by suicide.
When we see people share their story about their mental health journey, and we see the media respond with questions of whether the person’s experience is valid, rather than acknowledging the experience, or that speaking out and asking for help is an incredibly courageous and scary thing to do. When the experience is questioned rather than acknowledged, the likelihood of other people having the same experience and seeking help or sharing their experience decreases, and increases the risk of solidifying mental illness and trauma. We need to normalise that it is ok to share what you are experiencing – physical or mental – and that getting help for any condition is acceptable in normal conversation and media portrayal.
Let’s normalise a normal situation. Let’s have conversations about mental health like we do with physical health. Let’s see the media and the content we consume show us stories of people who are living fulfilled lives, working as competent employees, engaged in communities, while also living with mental illness. It is possible to live a full life while managing mental illness, it is the stigma and lack of representation that we don’t see ourselves reflected in yet.
Please include helpline contact numbers for all articles that involved mental illness and suicide reporting as it can trigger distress. This is a vital accessibility measure for everyone, not just people with mental illness.
If you see stigma in the media, please report to to StigmaWatch – a SANE Australia program to promote responsible reporting of mental health, and monitors and responds to inaccurate or inappropriate stigmatising media portrayal of mental ill health and suicide. Visit the website here: https://www.sane.org/advocacy/stigmawatch
In your local area, contact the organisations that are promoting stigma around mental health, or contact the relevant industry body or regulator.
Let’s tackle stigma together, for the health and wellbeing of everyone.
Take good care of each other, Readers. I’ll keep the light on.
If you or someone you know is affected and needs support, please contact the following organisations:
Beyond Blue – Beyondblue.org.au
Lifeline – https://www.lifeline.org.au/
SANE Australia – Sane.org
Black Dog Institute – https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
RUOK? – Ruok.org.au
Headspace – Headspace.org.au
Kids Helpline – https://kidshelpline.com.au/
MensLine Australia – https://mensline.org.au/
We are all aware of the mental health campaigns urging us to check in with each other, to start the conversation about someone’s mental health… but do you know how to support and guide them to resources if they say “No, I’m not ok”?. What are the next steps to take? Do you feel confident to have that discussion? Read more about my experience completing the Mental Health First Aid course.Keep reading