Tell someone you are suffering from bronchitis and they cluck sympathetically, promising to have the kids for an hour or so to give you a break.
Tell them you are suffering from a mental illness, and their eyes start to move in different directions, their words get stuck in their throat and they can’t get out of the room quick enough. So why, in today’s modern age of open-mindedness and forward thinking, is there a stigma over mental health?
Can you see it?
The problem is, mental health is poorly understand, and badly perceived. While bronchitis is characterised by a cough, fever and tiredness, visualising a mental health issue is not so clear cut. If you can’t see it, then it’s hard for many to comprehend. Yet according to the Mental Health Foundation 1 out of every 4 people will suffer from mental health problems at some point in their lives, a significant proportion of the population.
Most illnesses affect one or more organs of the body; mental issues are connected to the most important organ in our bodies – the brain. The brain controls how we think, feel and do, and for those suffering from any related conditions it is these three aspects of their lives that are most affected.
So if mental illness is just a disease like any other, why is there still so much stigma attached to the condition? The Stigma Shout survey, carried out by Time to Change, reported that 87% of people with mental health issues have lived with a negative impact at some point in their lives.
This clearly demonstrates that people living with this condition experience discrimination, and one of the biggest concerns is that sufferers are affected badly by outsiders’ perceptions. This in turn can worsen the condition, by impacting self-esteem and confidence. This can lead to the sufferer withdrawing more from society.
Some even impose self-discrimination on themselves; the process of believing in stereotypical examples of mental health, and adopting these for themselves. They then believe they have no self-worth, are not valued and will be rejected.
This is not helped by the media. Nursing Times discusses an article by the Queensland Alliance for Mental Health (2010) that talked about how those with mental health issues are shown in the media as “violent, impulsive and incompetent”.
Following a review of the scientific literature, it seems the general public see people with varying diagnoses differently, but in general the public feel that this illness makes the sufferers “unreliable” and less able to look after children, for example, as well as being less able to make decisions.
Lack of knowledge
This discrimination boils down to the fact that most people have no knowledge of the facts, or incorrect knowledge. A common misconception is that people suffering from depression should be able to “pull themselves together”, and do something about it for themselves. Yet if these very same people who made such fleeting remarks were to suffer for themselves, they would experience for themselves the difficulties surrounding this misunderstood illness.
The good news is that attitudes are starting to change – if slowly. Mind.org.uk reports findings from research by the Department of Health that demonstrates these gradual shifts in mind sets towards mental health. Although this is a positive step in the right direction, there is still work to be done, as some attitudes are not improving. A typical example is that many people still believe a person with a mental health problem is more prone to violence.
Work to be done
Another matter for concern is that many people stated that they would not feel comfortable discussing mental health with their employer, and the amount who say they would not feel comfortable talking to a friend has also risen. This may be due to the economic climate, and the uncertainty surrounding employment.
You’re not alone
When you are suffering from mental health, support is a crucial part of your recovery. Attitudes are continuing to improve, but in the meantime surround yourselves with people who understand and appreciate what you are going through.
You are never alone!