Shining a Positive Light on Negative Stigma
Mental Health Stigma
By: Shayla Murphy
Mental Health is so incredibly misunderstood. I chose this topic because I want to shine a positive light on mental health in order to decrease the negative stigma that comes along with it.
In today’s society a person’s physical health is significantly more valued then their mental health. However, an individual should be focusing on their holistic health care. Holistic health care focuses on the care of the entire patient, including; “physical, emotional, social, economic, and spiritual needs of the person; his or her response to illness, and the effect of the illness on the ability to meet self-care needs” (Farlex 2009). So why it is that mental health gets put on the back burner, and not taken as seriously as physical health? I believe that it is because of the stigma that comes along with mental health. There is such a large amount of judgement and negativity placed on those who are struggling with their mental health, it is incredibly unfair and unjust.
So what is this stigma that I keep mentioning? “Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be a disadvantage” (Mayo Clinic 2017). Often time’s people in our society have a judgmental and negative view because they are uneducated about the topic, or they truly just do not understand it.
As someone who has hands on experience with my own personal mental health struggles, it is hard for me to understand why our society can not quite wrap their heads around what it means to be mentally ill. It’s not like it is some big secret, we learn about it in school, it’s on TV, and all over social media. However, throughout my research and what I have noticed in our society, people still do not truly understand mental illness. Maybe it is because they do not want to take the time to understand it, they have never personally experienced it, or they have never witnessed a close family member or friend go through the struggles. An amazing blogger named, Therese Bouchard wrote these very powerful words that struck me; “…I was both enraged and saddened that friends and family were shocked to hear that two doctors sliced me open — before full anesthesia kicked in — to save little David’s life in an emergency C-section. Yet when I voiced the desperation of depression — which made the knife cut feel like a knee scratch–they often brushed it off, as if I were whining to win some undeserved sympathy votes” (Bouchard). Her words not only made me mad, but they made my brain start to ponder all sorts of things. Why on earth would people who are supposed to be her friends and family react this way? Is Bouchard seeking help and doing better with her mental health? Is this how the majority of people react when they hear about their loved ones struggling with mental illness?
I guess for me, someone who understands the emotional pain that Bouchard feels, I can empathize with her and the first emotion that I felt was compassion and understanding. However, for others it is not that simple. If you have never felt depressed, had a panic attack, or considered suicide; how are you supposed to know what that feels like? In some ways we can compare it to physical pain and illness. I have never had Diabetes, so I cannot imagine the awful feeling diabetics feel when their blood sugar gets too low, or the annoyance of having the check your blood sugar before and after every meal. Obviously, I can’t relate to these people. But, I certainly can be sympathetic towards them, and be caring and compassionate about what they are going through.
Understanding and compassion is the major difference between physical and mental health. How come even though I have never had diabetes, I can be caring and understanding towards that person for what they are going through? But someone with depression gets judged and made to feel like they are just looking for attention. However, all they are truly looking for is a little compassion and understanding towards their situation and their struggles. Having a mental illness, or having a loved one with mental illness, changes your outlook tremendously. It is much easier to understand and relate if you can compare it to a real life situation. As we can see by the quote below by Theo Bennett, you have the ability to make positive changes in your life and the life of others.
“It’s no secret that mental health is routinely treated differently than physical health, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand how or why this affects us. This disparity can take many shapes and forms, ranging from negative societal perceptions to discrimination in health coverage for mental health. Consequently, this unequal treatment of mental and physical illnesses leads to unequal results. If we don’t recognize mental illnesses as physical health issues, then we will never get people the treatment that they need. One of the few certainties that I have learned from living with a father with bipolar disorder is that mental health is just as important as physical health. In fact, mental health is physical health; the two are inseparable. It baffles me that many people continue to make a distinction between the two” (Bennett).
In my opinion, Bennett is a true inspiration of what every person in our society should be, a compassionate soul. He did not know anything about mental health, but when his father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he wanted to understand and be there for him. So he took it upon himself to become educated about his father’s mental health struggles. He also expresses that mental health and physical health should be two inseparable topics, because they both are so interrelated to one another. A person’s physical health can make them mentally ill, and a person’s mental health can make them physically ill. Bennett also made the argument that until we start treating these two as equal health issues, then there will not be equal treatment. Meaning that people with mental illnesses will not get the treatment they need or deserve.
“One of the most widely believed and most damaging myths is that mental illness is not a physical disease. Nothing could be further from the truth” (Szczerba 2016). Luckily, this myth is slowly starting to go away as people are becoming more educated, but there are still those that truly believe this. These people are so terribly wrong, it has been proven time and time again that mental illness is a disease of the brain. Another thing that I found interesting in Szczerba’s writing was the comparison of physical and mental illnesses, regarding the way that people treat them and talk about them. “Or imagine you just cut yourself. Or threw out your back. Or had an asthma attack. Or were diagnosed with diabetes. And the response to your malady was “You just need to change your frame of mind, then you’ll feel better” (Szczerba 2016). Even though this is not funny to those who are hearing these annoying words every day, this quote is almost laughable. Can you imagine having a heart attack, and someone saying, shake it off you are going to be fine, don’t be so dramatic. I imagine you would be very insulted and most likely never speak to that person again. However, these types of comments, are what mentally ill people hear day in and day out. Most of the time, these comments aren’t meant to be harsh or demeaning. But that is the way they come across, because people looking in from the outside do not know what else to say.
Another issue that mental health stigma is causing, is that people are too ashamed to reach out and ask for help when they really need it. “Despite the wide prevalence of mental health problems in the general public, only 30 to 40 percent of individuals experiencing symptoms seek treatment” (Kessler et al., 2001; Regier et al., 1993). This statistic scares me, because that means that the other 60 to 70 percent of people are silently suffering, and could potentially be ones who will end their life by suicide, or take someone else’s life. If our society did a better job at making people with mental health issues feel more accepted and understood, then I think we could significantly increase the number of people who seek help for their illnesses.
“The stigma of mental illness is devastating for both sufferers and their families, and can affect every area of life including interpersonal relationships, access to employment, and desired social roles and quality of health care” (West, Hewstone, Holmes 2010). Stigma does not only affect a person’s self-confidence and how they view themselves. It can also greatly affect your whole entire world including your career, if you have frequent panic attacks due to anxiety, or you have to skip a couple days of work here and there due to severe depression, employers may have a problem with this. Although they are supposed to be understanding and non-discriminating, sometimes that is not always the case. Also, if you have very severe depression, to the point where you can hardly get out of bed in the morning, and you do not even love yourself; then it can be extremely hard for someone else to love you. Therefore, this can make relationships with your significant other and even relationships with your friends very complicated.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my paper, I myself suffer from mental illness; which is one of the many reasons that I am passionate about fighting the stigma. I have felt stigmatized on way more than one occasion. I have depression, mild anxiety, and an eating disorder. Many people have said to me “How could you possibly have an eating disorder, you aren’t skinny?” or “You are always laughing and smiling, how can you be depressed?” At first I used to let those comments really bother me. But now I know that those people are completely ignorant to what it truly means to have a mental illness. Someone who is depressed, doesn’t cry all day every day, someone who has anxiety is not pacing the room and hyperventilating 24/7 and someone who has an eating disorder does not necessarily have to be skinny. There is a huge broadness and variety of people, all different shapes, sizes, and issues, who struggle with mental illnesses. I hope that when I become a psychiatric nurse I can help educate people on the topic of mental illness, which will hopefully play a small but important role in stopping the stigma.
If I have learned anything from being an IDS major it is that, interdisciplinarity is the idea that many different disciplines can come together to make something much bigger and better. For example, when it comes to a person’s health, we should not just be focusing on one particular aspect of it. We should be combining a person’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. All of these components come together to make a healthy and happy person. If one of these falters then the other one needs to pick up the slack. Not one discipline is more important than the other, they all play a crucial role in the holistic health of a patient.
Throughout my research and my own personal experience, I believe that although mental health is not the only important component of a person’s health. It certainly needs to be addressed much more seriously than it has been in the past, in order to stop the stigma and get people the help and support they need. I truly believe that every single person on this earth deserves to be heard and treated fairly. The only way that this can happen is if people stop judging and start accepting. Let’s all work together to stop the stigma!
1.) Bennett, Theo. “Changing the Way Society Understands Mental Health.” NAMI. N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 01 May 2018.
2.) Collins, Rebecca L., et al. Interventions to Reduce Mental Health Stigma and Discrimination: A Literature Review to Guide Evaluation of California’s Mental Health Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative. RAND Corporation, 2012. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt5hhsn1.
3.) Keon West, Miles Hewstone, Emily A. Holmes; Rethinking ‘Mental Health Stigma’, European Journal of Public Health, Volume 20, Issue 2, 1 April 2010, Pages 131–132, https://doi-org.libproxy.plymouth.edu/10.1093/eurpub/ckq015
4.) “Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 24 May 2017. Web. 01 May 2018.
5.) Szczerba, Robert J. “What If Physical Illness Were Treated Like Mental Illness?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2018.
6.) “What Many People Don’t Get About Mental Illness?” World of Psychology. N.p., 04 Nov. 2012. Web. 01 May 2018.