Stigma of mental illness is something I have experienced first hand as well as witnessed happen to others. It has taken many forms and while I believe that in many countries/societies awareness around and compassion for people affected by mental illness is increasing, I am keen to better understand how it comes about and how we (as individuals and societies) can work to reduce the stigma around mental -and other- health issues.
What I discovered
There appears to be a stereotype that people with mental health issues are violent and dangerous to others, although they are actually more likely to harm themselves than others. Yet nearly a quarter of people would not employ someone with depression and over 40% feel sufferers of depression are unpredictable (www.mentalhealth.wa.gov.au/mental_illness_and_health/mh_stigma.aspx).
Mental illnesses are perceived by many as personal weaknesses or character flaws, despite them being recognised medical conditions and I read about how this stigma and discrimination can delay or stop people getting help, and so trap people in their illness.
Stigma and discrimination for their mental illness has a negative effect on the lives of 9/10 sufferers of mental illness (www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/s/stigma-discrimination). Considering that 1/4 people are affected by a mental health problem during their life, that is not only an awful lot of people suffering mental ill-health, but also an awful lot of people suffering even more and unnecessarily because of our (society’s) inability to offer a safe and supportive environment.
Research shows that the best way to destroy mental illness stigma is by spending time with people who have first hand experiences. Several websites focusing on ending stigma encourage people to talk openly about their experiences of mental illness, as by keeping mental illness hidden, the idea that mental health issues are shameful and needs to be concealed is reinforced.
And then, right on cue, an opportunity was given to me to discuss an issue on radio relating to health and society. So my action for this week was to take part in a half hour interview on mental illness and associated stigma.
And I don’t know how many people I reached, but even it was only the interviewee, producer and editor, it was worth it.