Blog 8 (May 2, 2012): Stigma and Mental Health
Let me give you a scenario.
I want you to pretend you are a manager at a big bank. Today, you are in charge of hiring one more bank teller to interact with your clientele on a day-to-day basis. You meet two candidates, Jacob and John. To your delight, you are impressed by both candidates. Because you can only hire one, you decide to call their references.
First, you speak with Jacob’s reference. You learn that Jacob is an excellent worker. He is kind, patient, and a pleasure to be around. When you ask about absenteeism, you learn that, besides that month he spent in the hospital for his surgery, he has never been absent.
Next, you speak with John’s reference. You learn that John is an excellent worker. He is kind, patient, and a pleasure to be around. When you ask about absenteeism, you learn that, besides the month he spent in the hospital on the psychiatric ward, he has never been absent.
Now tell me… who are you going to hire?
Mental health – the stigma surrounding it is undeniable. While there is certainly no shame associated with healing in the hospital from a physical wound, individuals suffering from a mental illness consistently experience stigma associated with their injury. While it is not uncommon to hear individuals discussing their high blood pressure or back pain or chronic sleep problem, hearing someone discuss their manic episode or panic attack or binge-purge behaviours is substantially less common.
In any year, 1 in 5 Canadians will have a mental health problem. Look around you… unless you are alone, there is a strong likelihood that someone sitting around you has, or knows someone who has, a mental health problem. Do you know who? I am willing to bet that you don’t. We, as a society, don’t advertise mental illness. In fact, not only do we not discuss it, many of us don’t even address it. The stigma associated with mental health results in many of us either denying our mental health needs or refusing to seek assistance for these needs.
Where does this stigma come from?
It is quite natural, as humans, to fear what we don’t know, what we don’t understand, or what we can’t see. I think it would be fair to say that, for most of us, our relationship with mental health would fall into all three categories.
What We Do Not Know
Have you seen that episode of The Simpsons where Ned has a nervous breakdown? Guess what… mental illness does not look like that. The primary source of information on mental health for many has been the media, and the media does not always portray mental illness accurately.
What We Do Not Understand
It is easy for us to understand that, when we fall, our bones will break. When we eat too much fat, our arteries will clog. The cause-effect relationship is quite evident. Mental health is not so linear. For some soldiers, returning home from time spent overseas is a relatively smooth transition; for others, they are plagued with intense psychological distress, recurring nightmares, and intrusive images. The cause-effect relationship in mental health is much less clear, making mental health much less easy to understand.
What We Do Not See
Watching a physical wound heal is reassuring; we know we are getting better because we have physical proof. Mental illness is less visible. Fearing mental illness is like fearing the dark – we fear what we cannot see.
There are many myths that play a role in perpetuating our fear. I want to try to dispel some of them.
MYTH 1: Mental illness is just “in their head”
NOPE! With today’s sophisticated brain imaging technology, doctors can actually identify the differences in the brains of individuals suffering from some mental illnesses. Similarly, other conditions are due to changes in the neurochemical balance of the brain.
MYTH 2: People suffering from mental illness are dangerous
NOPE! They are no more dangerous than the rest of the population. People with mental illness are more likely to harm themselves or be harmed by others than to hurt other people.
MYTH 3: If you are diagnosed with a mental illness, you will have to deal with it for the rest of your life
NOOOOOOO!! With the right treatment, people with mental illness get better, and some recover completely.
MYTH 4: Medications used to treat mental illness alter the personality of the suffer
ABSOLUTELY NOT! Medications work by balancing the imbalance of chemicals in the brain that are responsible for specific mental health symptoms.
MYTH 5: Mental illness is due to a weakness in character
I hope that wee bit of info has helped to clear up some misconceptions you may have had regarding mental illness. I also hope that you realize the important role each of you plays in re-scripting societal beliefs surrounding mental health and mental illness.
I would like to share with you five small ways that each of you can make for those suffering from a mental illness, identified by the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Five small ways I can make a difference:
- Tell someone who doesn’t know my story of mental health problems, or help others tell their story.
- Seek direct contact by volunteering for a mental health organization, or find personal stories of recovery.
- Think about the words I use. Do I use people-centered language like, “A person living with...” or do I say, “A schizophrenic” or, “A depressive?”
- Think about how I personally support and treat people around me who are living with a mental health problem.
- Speak up when I see discrimination or when I see a law or policy that unfairly excludes people.
~Quote of the Month~
“From the viewpoint of absolute truth, what we feel and experience in our ordinary daily life is all delusion. Of all the various delusions, the sense of discrimination between oneself and others is the worst form, as it creates nothing but unpleasantness for both sides.”
- Dalai Lama