We are encouraged to take moments of mindfulness each day and to be kind to ourselves. Charities and organizations are a common aspect of our wellness landscape. Yet, for all this talk and marketing, stigma remains a significant challenge for those of us dealing with a mental illness.
One of the ways in which stigma can be especially problematic is in creating a barrier toward getting professional help. Negative connotations have the effect of overshadowing the potential positive gains treatment can bring. As a result, this combination of shame and societal pressure has the effect of having a knock-on effect on various aspects of the lives of individuals, their families, and communities as a whole.
So, just how important is it to put serious work into reducing the stigma of seeking professional help for mental illness? How can we work to be more compassionate, and break down those barriers? Let’s take a closer look at the key issues.
Why Does Stigma Persist?
In order to see how we can overcome the problems associated with stigma, it’s important to know what causes it to perpetuate. After all, few of us believe that it’s genuinely malicious and targeted. Yet, it affects us in similar ways to other forms of discrimination in our workplaces, homes, and everyday life.
This is often the result of strong negative stereotypes about those who are affected by mental illness. Popular culture, and indeed public opinion, have warped the image of people challenged by their mental illness. They are often portrayed as someone who is violent, dangerous, out of control, and scary to be around. While this has its roots in centuries-old fears, we continue to propagate these negative ideas of what it means to be mentally ill. Patients are still a popular subject of horror movies, and we continue to use harmful descriptors such as “crazy” and “insane” to describe those in crisis. While there have been some attempts to change language and attitudes, it seems we are still unable to make permanent shifts.
The truth is these stereotypes are far from reality. Despite how the media portrays patients, only between 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to those experiencing a mental illness crisis. It’s considered more likely that those with mental illnesses will be victims of crime. We might therefore conclude that these stereotypes, and the perpetuating stigma, are indicative of our fear of the unknown. We don’t fully understand the complex nature of mental illness, and therefore through ignorance and perhaps laziness, we allow these negative images and ideas to persist.
How is Stigma Damaging?
There is no doubt that stigma has negative consequences. Most of us can probably guess some of the more obvious problems it can cause, such as emotional distress, loneliness. However, these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The effect of stigma surrounding professional mental health treatment goes much deeper.
For the patient themselves, the inability to overcome this stigma has direct consequences. Treatment avoidance is common; according to the National Institute of Mental health (NIMH) 40-50% of all people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia go untreated. Even those with seemingly less severe mental illnesses, such as depression and stress, can be affected in this way too. Delaying or missing treatment can exacerbate the effect the symptoms have on their lives. The truth is, psychiatric professionals are more than the stereotype of a doctor prescribing medication. Professionals are a vital point of holistic support. For example, nurse practitioners also help design treatment plans, educate patients and their families about the fine points of illness, and co-ordinate with other experts to provide the most appropriately tailored care.
Patients failing to obtain professional help due to stigma can also have large effects on society in general. Left untreated, there is a greater chance of more severe symptoms being presented. This can put additional pressure on already strained public health and emergency services. The economy can also be affected, as untreated mental illness results in absenteeism. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the estimated global cost due to lost productivity is $1 trillion per year. Aside from the humanitarian reasons to combat the stigma surrounding treatment, we clearly have significant societal incentives as well.
How Can We Break the Cycle?
Now that we can accept that stigma is a problem, how do we go about solving it? We certainly have a duty to disrupt the negative stereotypes that help perpetuate stigma, but it’s not an easy fix. The actions we take have to be robust, and rooted in fact rather than perception.
In our personal lives, we need to be more willing to discuss mental health in a positive light. Treating it as a secretive, shameful issue only exacerbates stigma. When we engage in relationships with those who experience illness, we need to seek reliable education about the condition. Talk to them about their challenges, seek feedback as to how we can help, and above all else, demonstrate that they are loved and supported. Showing compassion and understanding can make them feel more accepted, and less like an illness defines them.
Workplaces are also prime areas for stigma to breed. Employers should provide educational materials in break rooms on the subject of mental illness and other common issues such as stress and depression. They should also create policies that make it clear staff can take time off to attend mental health appointments, or simply take flexible rest days. It can also be helpful to partner with providers to offer staff free or discounted counseling services.
Living with a mental illness can be challenging enough. Persistent stigma often results in patients becoming reticent to seek the professional help they need. We have a lot of work to do in breaking stereotypes and encouraging a useful dialogue. The sooner we start, the more people are likely to receive the support that can change their lives for the better.