When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t want anyone to know. I was only about 17/18 and was already considered to be the weird one among friends and family…I didn’t want to make things worse. I knew that my friends wouldn’t understand because 1) majority of them have never been through something like that, 2)they couldn’t understand things that didn’t fit into their world. My family…if they couldn’t see or touch it then it didn’t exist (this went for physical illnesses as well, and this only applied to most of my family). I knew the most common phrases would be:
- It’s just an excuse/phase
- Just get over it
- Stop being so dramatic
- Grow up and take responsibility for yourself
For a long time I was too scared and ashamed to confide in anyone. So I kept it to myself and tried my hardest to act normal. Some days it took all the energy I had, but I felt like I had to keep up the charade. The day decided to “let people in” wast the worst, but it wasn’t the best either. I got many of the reactions I knew I would, and then some kind ones I wasn’t expecting. I was called cray and asked so many uncomfortable incriminating questions (as if this was my fault and my choice). After the big reveal, a lot of people either kept their distance or started treating me different as if I announced that I had some horrible contagious disease. For a while I was actually okay with that because I didn’t have to deal with people. I grew tired of the stares and whispers but at least people stopped bothering me about the situation. After a while I got lonely, but once I reminded myself of what happened after I let people in, I just accepted that living the lonely life would be better. I actually stopped taking my medication in fear of extra ridicule from people (especially now that they know of my condition). It took me what seemed like forever to get over that and learn to ignore what other people said and thought about me so I could do what was best for me. I still face judgement from people who know about my circumstances, the only difference is now I don’t care (at least I try not to).
Negative thoughts/marks about a particular person (group of people) based on certain circumstances is called stigma. Mental health stigma has been around long before people really knew what mental health was. There are 2 distinct types of mental health stigma: social stigma (prejudicial attitudes and behaviors directed towards people with mental illness) and perceived/self-stigma (internalizing by the mental health sufferer of their perceptions of discrimination). Due to the fact most people don’t understand mental health, they view all symptoms and people who have mental illness as threatening, unpredictable and uncomfortable. Stigma comes in many forms: unwarranted assumptions, distrust, avoidance, pity, rejection, fear, dislike and under-estimation of abilities. Because of the stigmas people will often tell those suffering from mental illness that they’re crazy, weird, faking it, that it’s just a phase or (somehow) it’s their fault. Disclosing that you have a mental illness can keep you from obtaining a job (or if you have a job..a promotion). It’s not right (or legal) but people find loopholes and ways around everything. The stigma people face keeps them from seeking or continuing treatment, worsening the conditions and jeopardizing recovery. Stigma causes people to feel self-hatred, confusion, self-doubt, shame, anger, sadness, loneliness, etc. These negative thoughts can just be the fuel someone needs to commit suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.
(If you or someone you know is thinking or harming yourself, please seek help immediately. You are not alone and there is someone out there who cares and is willing to listen and help you!)
These negative ideal about mental health didn’t come from nowhere. Long ago before mental health was mental health, people thought those who were “different” were possessed by demons and other spirits. If this was your “explanation” for a person acting “different”, it would be easier to understand the fear, caution and discrimination. However with today’s medical research and scientific advancements, we know a lot more about mental health (and yet for some, it means absolutely nothing). Even with all of this knowledge, people still have their misguided views about mental health and mental illnesses. Compared to physical illness, mental illness is taken less serious in the medical field. The biggest perpetrator of misinformation comes from the media (movies, books, tv shows and the news). Movies will have characters portraying different mental illnesses, displaying overly dramatic symptoms to make the movie seem more interesting. Some media outlets are doing better at conducting more thorough research and watching how they display and talk about these illness, but some still don’t care. The news is the worst at making people with mental illness seem like dangerous criminals by calling every criminal they report on a psycho or blaming their horrific actions on being mentally ill.
Why is stigma so important anyway? Stigma encourages prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors. Stigma hinders treatment and recovery. Mental illness is the biggest economic burden of any other health issue. It’s expected to cost $6 trillion dollars by 2030 with majority of the costs being attributed to disability and loss of work. Funding for mental health research is low and that is why people with mental health problems are ten times more likely to find themselves in prison than in a psychiatric facility. At the end of the day, simply put, stigma is bad. But what can we do to fight back?
There are many things that we can do to fight against stigma. The first and most important thing we can do is educate ourselves, and take that knowledge and share it with others. Becoming educated on the matter and raising awareness on the issues helps counteract and eliminate stereotypes. When we see someone using stereotypes we need to call them out on it and get them to understand why what they are doing is wrong, and let them know how they can fix and change their ways. There are 9 efficient ways to fight stigma.
- Talk openly…I use my blog to talk openly about my battles with depression and what it’s like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD. Talking openly lets people know that I’m not ashamed or scared, and hopefully it lets other people know that they don’t have to be ashamed either.
- Educate yourself…That old saying that knowledge is power is true. The more you know the better you do. Many people make rude comments about mental health because they simply don’t know anything about it other than what they see on TV or hear on the news.
- Be conscious of language…Even I’m guilty of this one from time to time and have to remind myself that words can hurt. Changing the world I use and how I use them can make a big difference. Using words like “crazy”, “weird” and “psycho” can be hurtful.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental health…It’s no secret that mental health is not taken as seriously as physical health. Because it’s hard to “see” mental health, people don’t understand it. If people could learn to see depression and bipolar disorder the same way they do a broken arm or cancer, then attitudes would change.
- Show compassion…Compassion and pity are two different things. Offering a hug, kind words, a shoulder to cry on or lending an ear are all signs of compassion. It’s just the simple gesture of letting a person know that someone cares. It can make all the difference in the world.
- Choose empowerment…Don’t let others tell you how to live and feel about your own life. You need to own your illness. Don’t let others make you feel ashamed about something that’s not your fault.
- Be honest about treatment…When we say we have an appointment with a normal doctor, most people don’t even blink twice about it. At least there’s no judgement because everyone goes to the doctor. Say that you’re seeing a therapist and people give you those crazy looks and stares, immediately judging you. They start to whisper about what could be wrong with you to other people and come up with their own assumptions about you.
- Let the media know…You have a voice and it’s okay to use it. Letting people, including media outlets, know that the way they are portraying mental health is wrong and offensive is in a way our responsibility. We can’t expect others to speak up for us, and you don’t have to use foul and negative language just to get your point across.
- Don’t harbor self-stigma…Let those negative thoughts and feelings go!!!
Fear has driven mental health stigma for the last 400 years. It’s time to get rid of this fear. Fear has created several myths about mental health.
- Mental health problems do not affect children or youth. Any problems they have are just part of growing up. Facts: 1 in 5 children and youth struggle with mental health.
- It is the parents’ fault if children suffer from mental health problems. Facts: Mental health disorders in children are caused by biology, environment or a combination of both.
- People with a mental illness are “psycho”, mad and dangerous and should be locked away. Facts: People with mental illness have normal lives, but their feelings and behaviors negatively affect their day-to-day lives.
- Depression is a character flaw and people should just “snap out of it”. Facts: Depression results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function.
- People with mental illness never get better. Facts: TREATMENT WORKS as long as you are consistent in following the treatment plan.
Explaining why getting rid of stigmas is so beneficial for everyone involved could take days. It’s not a very important topic of discussion right now, and it’s not just mental health stigma (though that is the focus of this post). Fear is number cause of stigma and it’s time to change that. We all have a voice and it’s time to use it for good. The change won’t happen overnight, but it needs to happen. Let’s keep fighting to end stigma together.