Fighting the stigma against mental illness
What is Stigma?
The Mayo Clinic’s definition of stigma is ‘when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that is thought to be , or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype). Negative attitudes and beliefs towards people with mental illness are common, and this stigma is what breeds discrimination. Discrimination can be obvious, such as someone making a negative or offensive comment, or unintended, such as a person avoiding another because they believe that their mental illness makes them unstable or violent. Stigma and the way it can make others act towards people can often make that person start judging and stigmatising themselves.
The harmful effects of stigma can include: a reluctance to seek treatment: lack of understanding from family friends and or coworkers: less work or school opportunities: health care not properly covering mental illness, to name but a few affects. This can cause people to become ashamed of something that they have no control over. So how do we fight stigma?
Talk openly about mental illness
Talking openly about mental illness and how it affects you can help to break down the stigma and misinformation surrounding it. Rather than hiding or masking things, talk openly about your experiences and how mental illness affects you. Educate yourself about your condition or that of a friend or family member. By educating yourself you can help to dispel myths about mental illness, using moments when you hear someone make a mistake as a teachable moment. moments like that present you with the opportunity to gently intervene and explain why what they are saying is potentially harmful.
You can also take the opportunity to speak out when you see misrepresentations or stigmatising portrayals of mental illness in the media. Expressing your views via social media etc can help to combat misinformation and raise awareness, as well as show what the illnesses being misrepresented are actually like in real life.
Encourage equality between physical and mental illness
Stigma around mental illness is often born of the fact that many people do not treat mental illness as a disease in the same way as physical illness. Mental illness, as the term suggests, is an illness and thus beyond the person’s control. When people understand the facts of mental illness as a disease they become more likely to think twice about making insensitive comments, as they would when referring to someone with a physical illness. Often a gentle reminder that they wouldn’t make fun of someone with diabetes or cancer helps to show them how insensitive and stigmatising seemingly ‘innocent’ comments can be.
This is also true of the way in which therapy is talked about differently than seeing any other health professional. Therapy is often a vital part of treatment for both physical and mental illnesses. The more people realise this the less they will feel embarrassed about needing to see a therapist, just as they wouldn’t feel embarrassed about needing to see a physio-therapist.
Fighting Self Stigma
Stigma doesn’t only stem from others, but often ourselves. Often we allow misinformation to feed into our beliefs about our conditions and the effects that they have on us. Many find themselves reluctant to open up about their struggles, meaning that without getting the help and opinions of professionals it’s easy to allow misinformation to inform your view of yourself and your illness in negative ways. By educating yourself and seeking help you can understand yourself better, and remind yourself that none of it is within your control. It also means that you can educate those around you, whereas if you remain silent about it then those around you will not be given the opportunity to understand.
Another way to combat self stigma is to try not to equate yourself with your illness. Having a mental illness does not alter who you are as a person and it is important to remember that. The language that you use to talk about it can have a large impact on this. For example, instead of saying “I am bipolar”, say “I have bipolar disorder”, reminding yourself that it is something that you have, and that is only a small part of you.