There are still many preconceptions and misunderstandings about mental illness. Nobody is protected or immune, it can happen to people from all walks of life – irrespective of our economic status, age, race, gender, or political orientation.
A stigma is typically defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. Some of the common mental illness stigmas that permeate our society today are and sadly maintain the status quo of secrecy and shame surrounding mental health issues are:
- All people who are at risk of suicide have depression or another mental illness.
- People who think about suicide are selfish or weak.
- When someone is talking about suicide, they are looking for attention.
- There is little warning if a person intends to take their own life.
- Asking someone about suicide or self-harm plants the idea in their head.
- It is impossible to stop someone’s intent on suicide.
- Once someone has attempted suicide and survived, it means they’ll never try again.
Are depression, anxiety or personality disorders mental illnesses or a character flaws? Who or what do you think of when you think of people with mental illness? Is it people living on the margins of society? Or that the only people with mental health issues are people with issues? Are you thinking of the Germanwings pilot who deliberately crashed a plane into the Swiss Alps? Or maybe Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest comes to mind?
If these are your assumptions it might surprise you that Jim Carey, who has made a career out of making us laugh, suffers from depression and has battled it for decades. Robin Williams, Princess Diana, J.K. Rowling, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jordan Peterson – these are just a few celebrity names that might help us challenge the common misconceptions that people with mental health are lacking in some way, when in actual fact they are just like any of us. One in four people has a Mental Health problem. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
As long as mental illness and suicide are stigmatised, they will remain a hidden but very real public health threat.
Treatment is available but mental health stigma is a huge barrier on why many people, particularly men, don’t seek help. Recent research showed a link between men unable to fulfil the stereotypical attributes of masculinity (strong, dependable and able to provide for their family) and suicidal thoughts. I imagine that many of us don’t agree with those stereotypes, but some of us probably do – or at least know someone who does. How many of us have been guilty of saying ‘Man up!’ at some point in our lives? And how many times did we hear it being said to us, or the ones we love? The conversation is starting to change. Thankfully, there have been more and more campaigns like BBC 3’s ‘Real Men Do Cry’ or BBC Sport’s’ ‘Man UP’ that have been chipping away at those erroneous perceptions of men and masculinity, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable, but the shift needs to be more systemic and everyone needs to play their part.
Gandhi famously said ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ – if we are silent, the stigma will continue to exist. Below there are three suggestions in which we could help end mental health stigma and be the change we wish to see in the world:
- Change your language
A lot of the stigmas people have, show up in the language they use; using language like ’psycho’, ‘fruitcake’ ‘retard’ ‘nuts’ ‘ spastic’ or phrases like ‘screws loose’ or ‘lost one’s marbles’ just perpetuates the myths; We need to be mindful of our language, so it becomes more validating of someone’s difficulties and it conveys care and understanding, as well as a sense of ‘we are all in this together’
- Educate yourself
Start that understanding by expanding your knowledge on the topic; although the exact cause of mental health conditions like depression it’s not entirely known, it’s become clear through research that it’s a combination of psychological, biological, social and environmental factors. Mental illness is not a flaw in someone’s character - researching the topic and increasing our knowledge and awareness can help stop the stigma and bust the pervasive myths around the causes of mental health.
- Talk about it
The elephant in the room is a metaphor for an obvious truth that is being ignored or not spoken about. The best thing to deal with an elephant is to acknowledge it and name it. If we begin to talk openly about how mental illness and suicide affects all of us, either directly or through a family member, colleague or friend, if we saw these as an integral part of the human experience – perhaps we’ll become better at being with vulnerability and connecting with each other.
In order to move towards a personal and societal reframe or suicide and mental illness, perhaps we need to ask ourselves and others different questions. Rather than asking why the suicide, perhaps we can ask why the pain?
We need to reframe how we view mental illness and suicide because the more we do that, the more we’ll make care, treatment, help and support more accessible, which in turn will diminish the cost and impact on our families and society.
Since the focus of the month is men’s mental health and suicide prevention, the thing that we could all do in alignment with our Movember campaign is to reconsider the expectations that we have of men in society, regardless of our gender, and reconsider how we view men who have the courage to show us their vulnerability. What would happen if we asked the men in our lives how they are really doing and if they are struggling with anything they haven’t told us about? How might we choose to empathise with that pain and step into their experience? Can we hold space for men, listen to them and step into their experience without trying to fix things?
Written by Dr Oana Barnett, Counselling Psychologist for Psych Health, a Health Partners company.
Please note: ‘Men’ in the context of our article may include men, trans women, people who are non-binary who were assigned male at birth and cis gender men; and ‘women’ may include women, trans men, people who are non-binary who were assigned female at birth and cis gender women.