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The Silent Epidemic: Confronting Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

CW: This article discusses topics of suicide and mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.

Imagine if we lived in a world where we told physically ill patients just snap out of it, your only having a bad day. Sounds horrifyingly dystopian, right? However, this is the stark reality for, not physically ill individuals, but many sufferers of mental health problems. According to Mental Health America, globally 54% of adults with a mental illness never seek help partially because of stigma. This equates to 28 million individuals worldwide. Therefore, it is vital to address myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, explore the need to destigmatize mental illnesses and ultimately work towards creating a more supportive and understanding society for all.

Understanding stigma and its damaging effects:

In mental health advocate Kevin Breel’s TED talk, he says “If you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way”.

That’s stigma.

Pure. Deep-rooted. Ignorance.

As a society, we are uncomfortable around things we don’t understand, like mental illness, and therefore distance ourselves from people who are suffering and harness negative or discriminatory attitudes towards mental illnesses. For instance, institutional stigma is more rife than ever as in some countries, government policies and private organizations intentionally or unintentionally limit prospects for people with a mental illness i.e. lower funding for mental illness research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care.

This can result in self-stigma: internalized shame that people with mental illness have about their own condition, preventing them from seeking much-needed help and support.

Since you started reading this article, it’s been approximately 60 seconds. In this immensely short flicker of time, just every 60 seconds, a life is lost to suicide. Here, stigma has detrimental effects since it acts as a huge roadblock preventing sufferers from gaining vital help and support. According to a survey of more than 90,000 people, one of the main causes of people not seeking care for mental illness is stigma.

Day to day, mental illness sufferers can experience a lack of hope, reduced likelihood of staying with treatment, increased psychiatric symptoms, lower self-esteem, difficulties with social relationships, and more difficulties at work. All due to the rivetingly overwhelming stigma.

So, why we are so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brains?

Addressing the myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness:

"Mentally ill people are dangerous maniacs”.

Screw loose stalkers, psycho ex-girlfriends and wild teenagers. They’re all mentally ill according to Hollywood. A recent study found that the popular film Joker (2019) portrays mental illness as violent, resulting in “higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness" and exacerbated "self-stigma for those with a mental illness, leading to delays in help-seeking". So, evidently a lack of true representation of mental illness in media results in a lack of understanding, thus fuelling social stigma.

The belief that mentally ill people are unpredictable and dangerous is merely a stereotype. In fact, research demonstrates only 3% of people with a mental illness are violent. By any measure, those who commit violent crimes are overwhelmingly those who are mentally well and people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

“It’s just a phase or mood swings- you’ll grow out of it”.

Since many mental health problems arise in late childhood- early adulthood, it is often dismissed as just hormones and a part of growing up.

Popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why received criticism for glorifying suicide and romanticising mental illness as suicide was portrayed as more of a petty attempt to get back at bullies in lieu of a tragedy committed by a girl with mental illnesses, thus supporting the stereotypes of young people’s with mental illness.

However, it is a forlorn fact that 14% of teens globally experience mental health problems. Suicide is the fifth most common cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 15 and the fourth for those between the ages of 15 and 19.

“But you don’t look or act mentally ill”.

Being a top achiever, having the perfect family lifestyle, and dressing well. Mental health problems can affect anyone regardless of how amazing their life appears at face value. High-functioning mental illness is a term to describe those battling with a mental illness that most people don't detect. This is exhausting, overwhelming and hard to cope with.

Shattering stigma

Shattering stigma can seem like a mammoth of a task but The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers some suggestions about what we can do as individuals to help reduce the stigma of mental illness:

• Be open and honest when discussing mental health, for instance by interacting with discourse about mental health on social media.

• Educate both yourself and others; address misunderstandings or unfavourable remarks with facts or personal anecdotes.

• Be mindful of your language and remind others that what you say matters.

• Be understanding of mental illness sufferers, choosing empowerment above shame.


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