What’s With The Stigma Around Mental Illness?

mental health stigma mirror

Imagine if we treated all physical illnesses the same way we treated mental illnesses.

You’re in an accident – let’s say you fall down some stairs – and you break your leg. You have to be on crutches, and you can’t go to work for a few weeks. The pain is awful.

To be honest, you don’t want to leave the house anyway. I mean, you can’t. You can’t even walk.

Then one of your friends says:

“Can’t you at least try… not having a broken leg?”

Of course! Why didn’t you think of it before? If only you made more of an effort, perhaps your leg would cease to be broken. Time to give thanks for that really great advice.

When it comes to mental health, this is the situation people find themselves in – and it’s the kind of advice some people give.

“Can’t you just try to feel less sad?”

“It doesn’t seem like you’re making much of an effort to get better. Why don’t you… try to get better?”

People with mental problems do not choose to feel this way.

Mental illnesses are illnesses just the same as any other physical illness, and need to be treated in the exact same way.

Most of the time, people deal with mental illnesses in a way that might not benefit their health simply because of a lack of education or understanding, more than anything else. And that’s because our social system stigmatizes mental health. It doesn’t provide the same level of care, information, acceptance and support.

“But you don’t look ill.”

Someone may appear to be fine, but that doesn’t mean they’re holding it together on the inside. With physical illnesses like flu or food poisoning, it’s easier to justify taking time off work or going to hospital. A person’s need (and right) to seek care and take time off work isn’t always as clearly delineated when it comes to mental problems.

People suffering from mental illness may experience any or all of these, and more besides:

  • Feeling worthless or unmotivated
  • Worrying about things and losing perspective
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Social anxiety
  • Panic attacks (here’s a 5-step technique for panic attacks that might help)
  • … and lack of focus, or difficulty in making plans for the future.

It’s hard to make people understand something when half the time you don’t even understand it yourself. Sometimes, the person suffering from a mental illness may not even realise that they are ill.

“You know it’s just all in your head, right?”

Having mental problems does not make you weak. It’s not your fault.

One reason people tend not to seek advice is because they fear people might not believe them or take them seriously. But admitting you have a mental illness shouldn’t be labelled as attention-seeking in any way.

Asking for help is one of the strongest and most important things you can do. There is no shame in asking for help, whether it be speaking to a professional or a friend. Some people prefer to use the internet or social media to reach out to people, especially if they wish to remain anonymous. And that be such a positive step, and make a huge difference. However, it is important to share your problems with a tangible person and use the people around you for support so that you don’t have to aim for better health on your own.

“There are people way worse off than you.”

Oh, come one. There’s no need to compare. You can’t compare a broken leg to flu – they’re both debilitating. It’s the same with mental illness. If it holds you back, whatever it is, it’s bad. And mental health – or lack of it – is definitely real.

As a society we need to stop underplaying mental illnesses. Feeling this way can literally ruin people’s lives.

On the flip side, it doesn’t help to romanticize mental illness, either. Anyone who experiences mental illness in their lives knows it doesn’t feel very cute or edgy or mysterious to live that way.

Wherever we fall on the spectrum of mental health, we can support both ourselves and others when we don’t call people ‘crazy’ when they do something a bit wild, or we don’t refer to a young person with depression as being in their ‘goth phase, they’ll soon grow out of it’. We can help by using the word ‘triggered’ solely as it was intended – to reference someone who’s had past trauma resurface due to a triggering event.

Above all, we need to start viewing mental illness in the same way as any other illness.

The next time someone you know appears to be struggling with mental health, maybe ask yourself, “would I be acting this way if they had anything physical wrong with them?”

Need someone to listen and help? See Mookychick’s list of mental health helplines in the UK, US and Australia. You matter.