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What you need to know about mental health stigma

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It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so we’re going to be hearing the word ‘stigma’ a lot over the next few days.

The word ‘stigma’ gets thrown around a lot when talking about mental health, whether that’s on social media, charity campaigns or in debates and the news. Clearly, stigma is a major issue in the mental health crisis, and a hot topic at that.

It’s even been recorded that three out of four people dealing with mental illness have experienced some form of stigma surrounding their mental health at some point. But what exactly is stigma, how does it manifest itself and what can we do about it?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of stigma is as follows A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’ and in the context of mental health, stigma can have pretty dire consequences. Stigma is essentially a dark cloud that conceals and mystifies the truth about mental health, meaning that the result is a lot of people who have a completely warped perception of mental illness, as well as a lot of sufferers who can be deeply affected by these misconceptions and the shame that accompanies it. 

Stigma can come in many forms. Whilst it’s true that mental health is becoming more and more of a common topic of conversation, stigma is still thriving in many ways and many places, not all of which are obvious. Stigma can be seen in the form of a lack of understanding and knowledge about mental health and mental illness, and this is still very true today. This is largely due to poor education about mental health in schools, so young people are being brought up unaware of the true facts about mental illness.

Without education about mental health, stigma evolves into negative attitudes towards mental illness, with people consciously or unconsciously associating mental illness with unpredictability, laziness, attention seeking or even violence. These stereotypes, perhaps unsurprisingly, lead to prejudice and (at times) discrimination which, again, is a form of mental health stigma. The forms of stigma mentioned above are all forms of public stigma, which negatively affect both individuals and society as a whole. 

The reason why mental health stigma is such an important and discussed issue is due to its direct and damaging consequences on people suffering with mental illness as well as their friends, families and partners.

Self-stigma is a major product of public stigma because when people with mental illness are constantly being told that mental health conditions are something to be ashamed of and something to be kept quiet, they ultimately seek to keep their issues secret. Unfortunately, public stigma around mental health leads those suffering from mental health problems to start to feel guilt, shame and self-blame for their own mental health which is, of course, something we want to avoid. This can lead to very problematic circumstances, as feelings of guilt and shame can often lead to individuals believing they should not (or can not) access treatment or help for their mental health, which can result in mental health conditions worsening severely.

Public stigma also leads to a lack of progress in mental health and psychological research, lack of funding for mental health treatment and facilities and lack of resources for those struggling and their families. If the general public's attitude towards mental illness is one of shame, dismissal and negativity, mental health will be pushed to the bottom of the pile when it comes to prioritising different health and wellbeing issues.

This might go some way to explain the mental health crisis in the UK, as individuals with mental illness wait months, sometimes years to access the right treatment for them, if ever, and this is something that needs to change drastically and quickly. Stigma also affects the friends, family and partners of those with mental illness, as people feel less able to talk openly about their experience of loved ones with mental illness when there is an atmosphere of shame, misunderstanding and awkwardness surrounding the topic.

Stigma will affect us all in some way. One in four of us will encounter some form of mental illness in our lifetime, so if it isn’t us that will experience direct effects of stigma, the odds are that it will be someone we know or love. With so many affected, something needs to change.

The good news is that there are many things that we can do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. We can actively make an effort to educate and inform ourselves about mental health and illness. You could do this by following charities like Samaritans, Mind and Sane on social media, as well as countless other mental health organisations. This way we can absorb bitesize pieces of mental health knowledge while we scroll on Twitter and Instagram, which is great as knowledge really is key when it comes to dispelling negative myths about mental health.

We can also encourage the people we know and love to talk about their mental health, whether or not they have received a diagnosis of a mental health condition. Mental health is a spectrum, and we all experience good and bad mental health days, but it’s really important to talk about our thoughts and feelings so that toxicity doesn’t build up and people can help us if and when we need it. We encourage people to talk about their physical health all the time, and we need to be treating mental health in the exact same way. 

We can also tackle the stigma by speaking out against false information and challenging stereotypes. If we all addressed myths and misconceptions when and where we encountered them, the stigma would die out a lot quicker. So the next time you hear someone imply that people with mental illness are attention seeking, violent or crazy, gently and politely inform the speaker that they are mistaken; people with mental illness are just like everyone else and deserve to be treated with respect. 

Finally, perhaps the most effective weapon against stigma we have is our voice. If you suffer from a mental illness and you want to speak out about your experience, do so. There are forums online, as well as Facebook groups and communities on Instagram where it is perfectly safe to speak openly about your experiences. If you’re feeling ready, use your voice to share your experience publically, whether that is speaking to your family or partner about what you’re going through, or writing about your mental health on Instagram posts, in articles or at work events.

The more people talk about it, normalise it, laugh, cry and shout about it, the harder it will be for the stigma to thrive. Far more people struggle with mental health than we think, and that number will just keep rising if we let stigma overshadow our lives and experiences. Stigma is toxic and dangerous. So if you’re looking for a way to get involved this Mental Health Awareness Week, join us in smashing the stigma.

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