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What We Learned From World Mental Health Day—Tackling Mental Health Stigmas

A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that nearly two-thirds of individuals with mental health issues don’t seek treatment. Considering mental health problems can affect one out of every four people during their lives, that means millions of individuals around the world silently struggle. 

And who can blame them for choosing to keep quiet? Despite their prevalence, the media often sensationalizes mental health issues, treating them as plot devices or punchlines. Society continues to stigmatize mental illness and criticizes those who seek mental health help. Plus, many psychiatric and neurological disorders are misunderstood—even casually vilified—by millions around the world. 

The high stakes of mental health

When it comes to mental health, we can no longer afford to stay silent. The rates for some mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and suicide, continue to rise. Mental health issues will affect every one of us during our lifetime, whether it’s through a family member, colleague, or friend. And many of us will lose someone to mental health issues—every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide. 

World Mental Health Day 

World Mental Health Day, organized by the World Federation for Mental Health, is committed to global mental health education, awareness, and advocacy. Since its inception in 1992, World Mental Health Day has opened up conversations about everything from the worldwide depression crisis to the mental health of young people in the workplace. It’s a day for us to act as a global community, come together, and improve the mental health of people around the world. 

World Mental Health Day 2019

The theme selected for this year was suicide prevention. The goal was to raise awareness about how suicide impacts people around the world. To improve knowledge of suicide prevention, reduce the stigma associated with suicide and suicidal thoughts, and let people who are struggling know that they are not alone. To support these goals, WHO set aside October 10 for their “40 seconds of action” campaign. This campaign acknowledged that someone loses their life to suicide every 40 seconds, and encouraged us to use that time to take action. Whether that’s posting on social media to raise awareness, reaching out to a friend, or scheduling an appointment with a mental health professional. 

This year, the Day was supported by WHO, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, and United for Global Mental Health Day. 

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to a person’s psychological sense of well-being. It has to do with our ability to function, both emotionally and behaviorally, in society. According to the Public Health Services of Canada, “Good mental health allows you to feel, think, and act in ways that help you enjoy life and cope with its challenges.” 

Life experiences both positively and negatively influence our mental health. As can our relationships with others, work and school environments, physical health issues, and the type of communities we live in. 

Understanding mental illness

We all have mental health, just like we all have health. As the World Health Organization famously said, “There is no health without mental health.” Mental illness, on the other hand, is an illness or disease that affects how people think, feel, behave, or interact with others. There are many different mental illnesses, with various symptoms that impact lives in different ways.

It’s essential to remember that poor mental health and mental illness are not the same. As the Canadian Mental Health Association emphasizes in a recent article, “There are different degrees of health. People move on a continuum ranging from great or good health to so-so health to poor health to illness or disability.” This is also true when it comes to mental health. They go on to explain, “Just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness, people may have poor mental health without a mental illness.”

Mental illnesses are caused by a complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality, and environmental factors. They can be chronic or episodic and are often associated with problems functioning in social, work, or family situations. Depression, anxiety, and Bipolar Affective Disorder are the most common mental illnesses.  

The impact of mental health stigmas

Even though many mental health concerns are treatable, and most patients can return to their pre-illness life, mental health stigmas persist. We’ve even built these stigmas into our language and the way we talk about mental health and illness. Psychology Today defines mental health stigmas as either social or public stigma and perceived or self-stigma. 

The article goes on to note, “Stigmatizing beliefs about individuals with mental health problems are held by a broad range of individuals within society, regardless of whether they know someone with a mental health problem, have a family member with a mental health problem or have a good knowledge and experience of mental health problems.” The problem with stigmatizing beliefs is that they shut down the conversation around mental health and mental illness. People who worry about being stigmatized are less likely to seek treatment, more likely to be bullied, and may even experience large-scale discrimination. 

Create a barrier to treatment

Both social stigmas and self-stigma can prevent a person from getting help during a period of poor mental health. They may think that their friends, family, or colleagues will judge them for being weak, lazy, or attention-seeking if they admit to having mental health issues. Alternately, they may view themselves this way.

In reality, mental health has nothing to do with personality flaws or character weakness. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including biological factors (genes, brain chemistry, physical illness), life experiences (trauma, or a history of abuse), and family history. 

Lead to harassment, bullying, and violence

Negative stigmas of people living with mental illness may lead to harassment, bullying, and violence. This is especially true if the person with a mental illness is a child. Valerie Earnshaw, a professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Delaware, has researched the lasting impact of stigma-based bullying and how to prevent it. 

Earnshaw found that strategies like bystander intervention—where people not involved in a bullying incident speak up or intervene—could help address all forms of bullying. But specific strategies that address stigma, like reducing stereotypes and prejudice, may be necessary to address stigma-based bullying.

Justify discrimination in employment or housing

Many believe that people receiving treatment for mental illness can’t handle the stress of a job, or aren’t as reliable as people without mental illness. These social stigmas often lead to discrimination when it comes to applying for jobs or finding housing. In Canada, this discrimination is blatantly illegal. 

HeretoHelp, a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information, has compiled a variety of materials about mental health and human rights. In one, authors Terri Kennedy and Susan O’Donnell, write, “While society as a whole may still have a long way to go before people with mental illnesses are treated with the level of respect and dignity they deserve, our human rights laws have helped us understand stigmas associated with mental illnesses and have helped set rules that restructure employment and service relationships with the ultimate goal of inclusivity.”

Mental health myths fuel social and self-stigmas

Despite the progress we’ve made in the last decade, there are myths around mental health and mental illness that continue to reinforce social and self-stigmas. By busting these myths, we can move towards a future where nobody has to struggle alone.  

Myth 1: mental health problems rare, or uncommon

New research by Scientific American—in collaboration with labs around the world—suggests that mental illnesses are more common than heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. In fact, almost everyone will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point. 

Myth 2: mental illness is made up, or “all in your head”

One common, stigmatizing belief is that people living with mental illness are looking for attention or making up their symptoms. This disbelief can keep people from seeking treatment, for fear that their experiences will be discredited. Some may even internalize it and believe they are making up their mental illness. 

While not all mental health problems are diagnosable illnesses, your friends, family, and colleagues are not the right people to make that distinction. If you are experiencing poor mental health, a professional therapist, counselor, or psychologist can help you navigate your experience. Which brings us to our next myth.

Myth 3: you can’t recover from mental health issues

Almost all of us will experience mental illness at some point in our lives. For many, it will be a one-time experience. Most people recover fully, especially if they seek help early. Of course, recovery will be different for everyone, and some people may require ongoing treatment to manage their illness.

Myth 4: mental illness comes from a bad childhood

As we’ve mentioned already, a combination of biology, life experience, and family history contribute to mental illness. Someone with a traumatic childhood might never be diagnosed with a mental disorder, and someone with an idyllic childhood might struggle with chronic mental illness. Though childhood experiences factor into our total mental health, they are certainly not the singular cause of mental illness.  

Myth 5: you can’t help someone who is living with mental illness

It can be hard to recognize that someone you love is sick. Mental illness, in particular, leaves many feeling powerless. You can make chicken noodle soup for a head cold, but how do you help somebody struggling with depression and anxiety? According to the experts at HeretoHelp, just being there may be enough to help. Research confirms that support from family and friends is crucial to recovering from mental illness. They are often the first to notice something is wrong and can encourage early treatment, which leads to better treatment results. You can also provide emotional support, help your loved one with day-to-day tasks (like paying bills and making meals), and support their healthy lifestyle choices. 

How you can help combat the stigma

In the end, wide-sweeping social change starts with each one of us. There are a few ways you can begin to dispel the myths and support people with mental health issues. 

Treat physical and mental health the same way

If your friend had the flu, you wouldn’t expect them to crawl out of bed and go to a movie with you. Instead, you’d encourage them to stay home, rest, and recuperate. The same should be true of a mental issue, such as anxiety or depression. As Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, notes, “Most people aren’t ashamed to see a doctor to help them take care of their bodies. Hopefully, someday, no one will feel ashamed to see a therapist to help them take care of their minds.”

Be conscious of language

Language is an incredibly powerful tool. We can use it to build others up or tear them down. How we talk about people living with and being treated for mental illness is especially important. It’s easy to unintentionally label people by their illness, or even make their illness a joke. For people struggling with stigmas around mental health, your words can be the difference between life and death. Instead of reinforcing stigmas, be conscious of how you speak about mental health and mental illness. Self-correct where necessary, and correct others when the opportunity arises. 

Talk openly about mental health

Often, people struggling with their mental health feel isolated and alone. By speaking candidly about our own experiences and treatments, we can start normalizing mental health. Podcasts like The Hilarious World of Depression are doing just that. By interviewing celebrities, comedians, and internet stars who have experienced mental illness, the show’s creator and host John Moe takes the taboo out of mental health talk. 

Working together for mental health

While not everyone will experience mental illness, we all have a vested interest in promoting mental health. We’re trying to shift the medical industry from “sick” care to health care. Why not do the same with mental health care? If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, Lumeca is here to help. Through online video therapy, our team of mental health experts can help you from the comfort of your own home.