STIGMA AND MENTAL ILLNESS:  WHAT CAUSES IT AND WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

“I don’t need help.  I can do this on my own.”
“I am not a good Christian.”
“What will people think?”
“I’m not crazy.”
“How did I become so weak? I used to be the strong person that all my friends and family came to for advice.”
“When I talk about my illness, people tend to disappear.  Something in me told me to be quiet but something else within me needed to vent.”
I am sure you know someone who has struggled with emotional concerns.  That someone may even be you.  As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, the amount of times I have heard patients make statements like these are too innumerable to count.  Their words reflect common core beliefs and negative experiences that stem from the longstanding impact of the stigma associated with mental illness in our society.  Who can blame them for thinking and feeling this way?  We have to face our truth.  We are constantly being bombarded with negative depictions of the mentally ill in the media.  We even have to reconcile prejudicial perceptions and convictions about mental illness that may occur within our own families, churches, and communities.  As a result, the fear of being judged, ridiculed, or alienated has contributed to multitudes of people suffering emotionally in silence because they are reluctant to seek professional help.
Lack of accurate knowledge about psychiatric illnesses and fear often cause or perpetuate issues with stigma.  It is a natural inclination for humans to be afraid of the unknown.   Some people cope with their fears by disavowing, dismissing, or rejecting the entity or the people that remind them of their own human vulnerabilities.  Instead of acknowledging and addressing the problem by lending a helping hand, they collude with stigma through their silence.
How do we address the quandary of stigma and many of its deleterious effects, which include poor access and receipt of mental health care, isolation and marginalization, bullying and harassment, helplessness, and death to suicide? It takes a commitment from each of us to take a stand.  Here are a few suggestions to managing this mental health care dilemma:
We must take the time to properly educate ourselves about mental health issues.  If you or someone you know are struggling with emotional concerns, it is imperative to seek professional assistance.  With the help of a good therapist or psychiatrist, you will more than likely receive external validation that you are not alone in your situation and that you have no reason to feel ashamed.  I strongly recommend reading about mental health providers online to get a sense of their therapeutic approach and treatment philosophy.  Ask for referrals from primary care providers you trust as well.
It is imperative that you seek help even in the midst of your fears of being stigmatized.  Do not hold yourself hostage trying to manage the impressions others have of you at the expense of your emotional well-being.  Reach out to friends or family members who you trust to be open and non-judgmental for emotional support.   Oftentimes, when you can acknowledge and accept your own emotional struggles, you feel less oppressed and preoccupied with what other people think.
Recognize that mental illness does not define you as a person.  You are not your circumstances.  Your identity should not be reduced to your emotional struggles.  There are multiple layers to who you are and what you represent.  We must reframe our thinking to understand that mental illness has both biological and psychological implications that are oftentimes difficult to control without the help and guidance of a mental health professional.
If you have recovered from mental illness in the past, be bold and speak out about it.  You will be surprised how your testimony can be uplifting to someone else.  Hearing your story may be the very thing someone hurting may need to foster the courage to seek professional help.   Do not collude with stigma by remaining silent.
Do you know someone dealing with mental health illness? Are they getting support and professional help? I would love to hear. Please comment below and share.
This post was written by expert contributor Dr. Valdesha Ball, medical psychiatrist.
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