The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has designated the first week of May as Mental Health Week. The goal of this yearly event is “to encourage people from all walks of life to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health.”
In support of this cause, I am dedicating this blog post to the subject of stigma against people with mental disorders.
Stigma against mental illness is probably far more prevalent than you realize. Even though society has come a long way since the days when it was viewed as a sign of demonic possession, most people are still not comfortable talking about it or even acknowledging its existence. People with mental illness are just not treated with the same respect that is given to those with a physical illness.
According to the CHMA Fact Sheet, Stigma and Discrimination Around Mental Health Problems, most people living with a mental disorder say that stigma is worse than the symptoms they feel.
This was expressed by Alicia Raimund, one of the speakers at TEDx Waterloo (did you really think I was done talking about that?). Alicia, who is committed to opening minds to the struggle and stigma of mental illness, compared her experience with depression and anxiety to being locked in a basement behind a thick door. Whenever she attempted to open up to a friend about her illness, they generally responded with disbelief (“but you don’t seem that bad…”) or avoided talking about it altogether.
Alicia is involved with a number of causes, including mindyourmind.ca, a website where youth and young adults can access information, resources and tools that they need to cope with the challenges in their lives. I visited the site while writing this post and was pleased to come upon an interview with author Cheryl Rainfield about her book SCARS, which I’d read earlier this year. I found it to be a great book to help readers understand and respect others who are different than themselves, whether it’s due to sexual orientation, family situation, mental illness, or other circumstances, as it tackles these difficult subjects head-on without being preachy in any way.
A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation about the effects of mental health issues on youth. Sara McAuley from the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario stated that
Mental illness is a valid medical condition that deserves the same care, support and compassion as any other illness.
She went on to point out that while people with cancer or other physical illnesses are referred to as “survivors,” those with a mental illness are given such labels as “nuts,” “crazy” or “psycho,” and explain that this type of stigma prevents people from getting help.
This thought was reinforced by journalist Jan Wong in an interview on CBC Radio this past Sunday. When she first began to experience symptoms of depression, she didn’t realize that’s what it was, because she associated depression with weakness, and just didn’t see herself as a “weak” person. Her new book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and Yes, Happiness describes the stressful events that triggered her depression as well as the impact it had on her life when she was ultimately fired by the Globe and Mail and denied sick leave benefits by her insurance carrier. This is an important story and I’m glad it’s being told by such a high profile person, because it happens to people all the time, but they generally don’t talk about it because of the stigma, and they don’t fight back because to do so would just bring about more stress, leading to more depression and anxiety.
For visual depictions of the effects of mental illness and the stigma associated, check out Niagara’s Mental Health Anti-Stigma Campaign’s postcard project.
Stigma is not just about stereotyping or discrimination. It is also about a lack of understanding and respect. When you make jokes about mental illness, you are downplaying the seriousness of the challenges faced by millions of people each and every day. Think carefully before you say you would never treat mental illness as a laughing matter. Do any of these lines sound familiar?
I’m fine. The rest of you need therapy.
You’re just jealous because the voices only talk to me.
People like you are the reason people like me need medication.
It’s okay if you don’t like my personality; I’ve got several others.
For examples of inaccurate and hurtful depictions of mental illness in TV, film, print and other media, check out the Stigma Alerts put out by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Although no new content has been added in quite some time, I think there is enough there to open your eyes and your mind to this deplorable situation.
What You Can Do
Taking time to explore the resources mentioned above will go a long way towards helping you realize that mental illness is no less real than cancer, arthritis or diabetes. With this understanding, it will be easier for you to be compassionate towards people with mental illness and, as Sara McAuley put it, “create a culture of acceptance.”
Photo © Marina Putyata / Depositphotos