Sunday, May 10, 2015

The stigma around mental health

There is still a lot of stigma around mental illness. The word stigma is often bandied about like as if it’s not really that damaging and it doesn't ruin people's lives. It reminds me of the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. But names do hurt, a lot. They might not break our bones but they can break our psychological well being which has a direct and negative impact on our physical health too.

I can totally understand why people want to keep the fact that they have a mental health issue private and that is their prerogative.  But the reason why we keep it private is important.  There are places where you can reach out for help safely and confidentially*. Shame is too often the reason why people feel they can’t tell anyone and when you see how society in general reacts to mental illness, can we blame people for not opening up? Having nowhere to turn is a desperately lonely position to be in.

I have a family member with schizophrenia, and not only does she suffer from stigma, my immediate family does too. I’ve seen how people react when I tell them or they find out. Very few people behave in the same way when you tell them a family member has cancer, nor do they think cancer might be contagious. There is often little to no compassion when people hear that others are suffering from mental illness. Instead, too often there is fear, gossip and plenty of ignorant judgements.

My experience is that every single one of us has been affected by mental illness. Whether it’s because we have been diagnosed with a mental health issue or a friend or loved one has, or maybe we haven’t been diagnosed with anything but we know that our mental health could be better.

The husband of Carolyn Spring, who is a counsellor, says she is the one of the sanest people he knows. Carolyn has dissociative identity disorder after suffering the most horrific ritual abuse in her childhood. In my experience the sanest people don’t pretend they have it all together, they’re not perfect and they also know that reaching out for help, to the right people, is one of the most courageous things they can do.

*The caveat to total confidentiality is if you are in danger of hurting others, everyone is obliged to report this. If you are in danger of hurting yourself, an immediate action plan should be put in place to keep you safe.

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