Imagine that you had broken your leg through no fault of your own – it just happened. Now imagine that when you told your friends that you’d broken your leg some of them started avoiding you or stopped inviting you to social events. Imagine that broken leg meant that you were unable to do your job to your usual high standards, but your employers were at a loss as to how to support you. Although well-meaning they didn’t really involve you in any decisions about what happened to you. Imagine you took some time off for the leg to heal but when you come back no one asks how you are and everyone seems a bit awkward around you. Imagine that you feel embarrassed and ashamed by your broken leg and that while you are off work you don’t feel able to go out to the shops in case people see you and say you’re not really ill enough to be off work if you’re able to go to the shops.
Now swap the words broken leg for anxiety or depression. These are exactly the things that happen to people with mental illnesses because of the stigma attached to talking about mental illness. Stigma stops people from living fulfilled lives, from seeking help and treatment, from participating fully in society. Stigma stops people getting jobs, impairs recovery and isolates people. Not mental illness but the stigma of mental illness.
The word stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. It is associated with shame and dishonour and therefore where there is stigma, we tend to shy away from speaking about the issue at hand. Stigma is often associated with the unknown. In 2019 we know so much more about how to support people in both recovering from and living well with mental illness.
When we talk about mental health, we are more often than not talking about mental illness. The words mental health summon up thoughts of anxiety and depression, psychosis and bipolar disorder. If I asked you to think about physical health, I suspect you wouldn’t automatically think of that broken leg, cancer, arthritis and diabetes. You’d probably think about fitness, exercise, healthy eating. So why is it that when we think of mental health, we think of illness not wellness?
Newspapers paint those with mental illness as murderers and dangerous to be around or as fakers who are scamming the system or addicted to ‘happy pills’. Memes suggest that medication is unnecessary and what you need to do is go for a walk in a forest to feel better. Movies portray mental illness as the background for terrifying behaviour. Magazines report that Lady Ga Ga (insert many names here, it’s the language that bothers me not the celeb that is raising awareness by talking about their own experiences) ‘admits’ to having depression as if this is something to confess to. ‘Sweet but a psycho’ is an actual title of a hit pop song. What’s that telling young people about mental illness? The language of stigma is all around us informing our unconscious bias and our conscious stereotyping, creating discrimination and prejudice.
So how do we change that?
1. Raise awareness and develop knowledge
When we know more about mental health and mental illness we can have a more informed conversation. It’s easier to know what to say to someone when they open up to you if you aren’t completely ignorant.
2. Talk about it
It is better to say something than nothing at all. If someone is brave enough to talk to you about their mental health, ask questions and be supportive. Don’t stop talking to them because you feel awkward – imagine how that will make them feel.
3. Call it out
When your colleague at work is stressing out about getting something perfect and jokingly says she’s ‘a little bit OCD’, that is stigmatising. Having OCD is crippling not funny. Don’t participate in conversations that make mental health a joke. Be gentle but be brave about calling out language and jokes that stigmatise mental illness.
This article was published by Training Journal 13 May 2019 as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.