How to combat the stigma of mental illness

By Hannah Evans

3924578576_af34662472_zEvery one of us will be directly or indirectly impacted by mental illness at some point during out lives. In the UK, 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. This could be a family member, colleague or close friend, or we may find ourselves afflicted. Mental health illnesses are far more common than we may think, and according to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 depression will be the second largest cause of disability worldwide, behind heart disease.

However, individuals suffering from mental health problems are frequently stigmatized and alienated. People’s prejudices and ignorance about mental health issues have created misconceptions and stereotypes, isolating those afflicted. This misunderstanding of issues has led to the polarisation of attitudes. In many cases, mental illnesses are either considered dangerous and should be feared, or are selfish illnesses that do not exist. The recent Germanwings tragedy in the French Alps led to a string of tabloid headlines that no doubt reinforced such stigma towards mental health, alienating those that suffer and inhibiting recovery.

Reducing stigmatising attitudes is not only key to educating the public about what mental health is and how common mental health problems are, but is also vital to promoting recovery. In the UK today 9 out of 10 sufferers will experience discrimination, most commonly in the work place. However, there are things that each of us can do to tackle stigma on a day-to-day basis.

Education has a crucial role in banishing misconceptions about mental health disorders and normalizing them. Mental health issues affect millions of people in this country, with the most common forms of illness being depression, anxiety or a combination of the two. In fact, we all live on a spectrum of mental wellbeing, which each of us slides up and down throughout our lives. Research has shown that in many cases mental health illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, have genetic roots. However, ignorance about such conditions has led to the polarization of opinions.

Those afflicted are either considered unstable and dangerous and so should be rejected from society, or they are selfish, suffering from a ‘fake’ illness, and so should be to blame. We should seek to understand and support mental health issues, not label them as fearful, shameful and incurable conditions. Educating others and ourselves is key in banishing myths and stereotypes, and highlighting how normal such issues are.

Another key element of reducing mental health stigma is communication. The way in which we communicate with those affected by mental health illnesses is powerful. Language is capable of reinforcing stigma and damaging recovery and relationships. Stigmatizing language is still prevalent in our vocabulary. Those afflicted are often termed as “retards”, “crazies” and “psycho”. Just last month reports by the UK’s tabloid papers led to headlines such as “Mental Pilot Deliberately Crashed Plane”, “Madman in Cockpit” and “Why On Earth Was He Allowed to Fly?” This form of communication is hugely damaging, misleading and inconsiderate, suggesting that all those suffering from depression are a threat and should not be allowed to work. This miscommunication has been an ongoing issue. Following the emergence of Frank Bruno’s mental health problems, The Sun led with the infamous headline “BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP!” Clearly the use of alliteration in selling newspapers was more important than accurate and fair reporting.

However, just as important as communication in reducing stigma is listening. Through listening without judgement comes support and empathy, and only with support is recovery possible. Listening to people with mental health issues with dignity and respect is crucial to encouraging recovery. Offering help based upon mutual respect and understanding is hugely valuable. It is capable of replacing feelings of isolation and rejection with a sense of agency and personal worth. It can empower and inspire.

Photograph: Feggy Art via Flickr

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