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Nobody is immune to a mental health disorder, yet studies continually tell us that it is the shame, and the fear of friends, family, business colleagues thinking less of them that prevents people from admitting to depression and anxiety and, consequently, from seeking treatment.
This is the twenty-first century. We know that mental illness is not the result of character flaws or wimpy personalities. We have scientific proof of the genetic, biological and environmental factors that cause them.
Why, then, is the primary knee-jerk reaction still not to let anybody know?
Having an anxiety disorder or clinical depression is no different than having diabetes or myopia. Mental health disabilities are facts of life and have methods of treatment just as physical health disabilities do. One in five people have a mental illness at some point in their lives, yet the prevalent attitude to it is both negative and discriminatory.
Mental health advocacy groups around the world are attempting to prevent the shame and social isolation that is associated with mental illness so that people can seek treatment without fear of losing all the moral supports they so badly need to maintain. It is, however, up to us – people whose lives, either directly or indirectly, have been touched by a mental health disorder – to talk about it, turn it into just another topic of conversation, promote understanding... And, do you know – that’s just about all of us? So why is it so hard to do?
Coping with an anxiety disorder is difficult enough without having to also cope with people’s perceptions of what a mental health disorder is. The well-meaning denial – such as ‘he’s over-reacting’ or ‘she’s just very shy’ – of the reality of a disorder by family members intended to avoid stigma, actually creates additional stigma. It’s okay to say social phobia or that someone is having a panic attack! We know that they are treatable conditions and if there is somebody, on whom the problem impacts, who doesn’t know, steps must be taken to educate him or her. This is the attitude we, the mental health literate, must develop when dealing with the almost 50% of the population, which some studies show, who admit that they would be unwilling to work or socialize with someone with a mental illness.
That knee-jerk reaction to avoid telling people about your disorder, because of the additional worry about their perception of you, increases the burden because it can cause you to develop the opinions of yourself that you think other people would have if they knew. End result? Major self esteem problem in addition to the anxiety disorder!
Understanding of mental illnesses has increased since, for example, the 1950s – when admitting to a nervous breakdown meant having people distrust your sanity for the rest of your life, to a point where most people accept that stress, genetics and chemical imbalances are more likely the cause of mental illnesses than bad parenting or weak character, etc. More people understand that recovery is an option, not an impossiblity especially in terms of anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders which will significantly improve if treated. Unfortunately this increasing understanding is not improving attitudes – or, if it is, it’s a very slow process. Researchers are concluding that educating people about mental illness does not, on its own solve the stigma problem. This task is tougher in that people must be challenged to re-access their ingrained assumptions and fears about mental illness. Stigmatisation has for too long been a basic response to avoiding the need to accept people with mental health disorders as individuals.
Stigma is, in fact, categorisation of people just as class and caste systems are. The only way to overcome it is to promote the individual. We have to speak out against it – explain its effect, correct negative and inaccurate statements and misapprehensions and support the recovery and advocacy efforts of such events, to name a few, as the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week, the slogan for which is “Respect, don’t Reject”, the Royal College of Psychiatrists “Changing Minds” campaign, Mental Health Australia’s “Talk About It” campaign and the U.S. National Mental Health Association’s Stigma Watch which monitors media coverage of mental illness.
Copyright Jean Jardine Miller.