The Mental Health Stigma
When I was sixteen years old, I decided to go on an exchange year abroad. What I thought would be a wonderful experience turned out to be the toughest, but undeniably the most enriching time of my life.
Upon coming to England, my fantasy of a fun year abroad was shattered. I did not do well in my A-levels. I could not make friends. I had conflicts with my host family. I experienced my first break-up, a true tragedy for any teenager. The stress was too intense for a sixteen-year-old me. However, I pretended as everything was fine – I did not want to be the weak one. But the suppression did not work for long. The stress manifested itself into something I would have never imagined.
It all started by waking up in the middle of the night being unable to breathe. However, I always had trouble sleeping, so I brushed it off. But then, out of the blue, my heart would beat uncontrollably, I would start shaking, while experiencing an intense feeling of dread. I started to be out of touch with reality. Without a reason, I was scared of using public transportation. I was terrified of people close around me suddenly dying. I would torture myself with these dreadful visions all day.
I knew something was wrong. I visited many different doctors who performed countless tests. Their verdict: I was completely healthy. Nevertheless, my symptoms were getting worse every day. However, during one visit, one of the nurses probably saved my life. She looked at me and said with a little hesitation: “Have you ever considered that all of this could be due to something psychological?”.
I was puzzled. Me? A psychological disorder? I thought I had heart palpitations. Lung cancer. An embolism. I had thought of all of these unlikely medical scenarios, and yet the answer was: an anxiety disorder.
It got me thinking. How come during all this time, nobody, not even medical specialists, have suggested that I could have a mental issue, even though my symptoms were a tell-tale sign of anxiety? How come my family and friends, all very educated people, have not thought of this?
The answer is: mental health stigma.
In our society, mental health issues are not on the same level as physical health issues. Mentioning your physical illness to others is seen as a valid threat to one’s well-being, and those who suffer from them are usually offered social support and condolences. However, mental health issues are seen as an indulgence – as something extra. Something one can control, if they “try hard enough” or “take a day off”. Even worse, many see it as a mean of seeking attention.
Mental health stigma does much more damage than just preventing people from getting help. The society’s attitudes makes mental health sufferers feel misunderstood and pushed to the edge of the society. This only worsens the already existing burden of mental illness. Due to the stigma, a person suffering from mental health issues often lacks support. The person may be perceived as weak, incapable, or feared for being violent. This can in turn lead the person to self-stigmatize, lowering their self-esteem and feelings of worth.
The media and the current educational system are not helping at all. Mental health issues are usually not a part of the high school curriculum, even though physical illnesses are. This is puzzling, as 20 percent of people will experience a mental health issue at some point of their lives¹.
The media does not offer a valid representation of people suffering from mental health problems either. In movies, people with psychological illnesses are either shown as crazy killer maniacs, or weak and childish individuals.
In fact, mental health problems have been recognized as second most stigmatized health issue after HIV/AIDS² 1 in 4 people believe that those with mental health problems should not be allowed to hold public office. 1 in 10 people believe that people with mental health issues should not be allowed to have children³. 46 percent of people in Wales believe that people who have experienced depression should be denied work as primary school teachers⁴. Fewer than 4 in 10 employers would consider hiring a person with a mental health problem, compared with more than 6 in 10 who would hire a person with a physical disability⁵.
Mental health issues are truly one of the last taboos in our society that has not been shattered.
The Western society prides itself for being progressive, but telling others you are visiting a therapist or taking medication is still a no-no. Interestingly, the rate of mental health stigma is higher in our society than in non-Western countries. In Asian and African countries, the rate of mental health stigma was found to be lower⁶ with the least amount of stigmatization in Islamic societies⁷. In the past years, Western countries had open discussion about homophobia, sexism, or racism – so when are we finally going to have the mental health talk?
However, I believe things are getting progressively better. In the past two years, I have noticed more and more voices demanding the destigmatization of mental health issues. However, it will be a long journey until mental health stigma will disappear completely. This is because the stigma does not exist due to people wanting to be deliberately ignorant and mean – but because they lack relevant information and have deeply engrained stereotypes they may not even realize they have.
So, what is the solution? One of the necessities is to improve education about mental health. However, most of us do not have the position to influence this. But, what we can do is to try normalize mental health issues. If someone from your environment discloses to you that they have a mental health issue, listen to them and be supportive. You do not even have to offer advice – just be there for them. If you are a sufferer of mental health issues, I encourage you to speak up and not keep it a secret. It is difficult, but it is worth it, both for your own good and for fighting the stigmatization. I try to do the same. Last year, I told my story during one of my classes at university, and have disclosed to people that I have been to a psychologist in the past. And now, I am sharing my experience with the world. I hope I encouraged you to do the same.
By Denisa Debrecká
1. National Statistics Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England: Results of a household survey. (2009). NHS: National Health Service.
2. Roeloffs, C., Sherbourne, C., Unutzer, J., Fink, A., Tang, L., & Wells, K. B. (2003). Stigma and depression among primary care patients. General Hospital Psychiatry, 25.
3. Survey of public attitudes towards mental health (2013). ORS: Time To Change Wales.
4. EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) (2008). Who Do You See? Living Together in Wales. Cardiff: Equality and Human Rights Commission.
5. Mental Health and Social Exclusion: Social Exclusion Unit Report Summary (2004). Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, London.
6. Fabrega, H. (1991). Psychiatric stigma in non-Western societies. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 32.
7. Dols, M. W. (1987). Insanity and its treatment in Islamic society. Medical History, 31.