Getting to the root of mental health stigma
Think of almost any portrayal of someone with mental health issues in the media. People with “mental health” problems are often characterized as being very unstable, and even violent.
That’s a problem because these stereotypes have a significant effect on those suffering from mental illness: People are less likely to seek the help they need.
“They want to be sure before exposing themselves to the considerable stigma that exists. They may even wait for the symptoms to go away. Instead the symptoms become more severe and they continue to decompensate or deteriorate,” says Glinda O’Neill, LCSW, Behavioral Health and Psychiatric Emergency Response Service (PERS) Manager at Sentara Healthcare.
Perception Vs. Reality
People fear what they don’t understand. That especially holds true for mental illness. The term “mental illness” refers to a broad category of symptoms, many of which are not harmful.
This stigma can lead to distress that may actually be worse than the original symptoms themselves, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
With a little education on the real issues with mental health this stigma can be overcome.
In reality, the symptoms of mental health patients are sensationalized.
“Often times, individuals may be suffering from bouts of depression or challenges in dealing with grief or loss,” explains O’Neill.
As with anything, there will be outliers. But those outliers don’t represent the majority of any given population. It’s the same with mental health patients.
The Battle Against Stigma Continues
Several campaigns have been dedicated to fighting the stigma — with mixed results.
A campaign directed by the National Institutes of Health focused on the phrase “Real Men, Real Depression,” the APA states. It was aimed at directing men to notice the symptoms in their own lives and how often these symptoms exist.
The result? The campaign highlighted how many people may be mentally depressed, and it stimulated fear in the general public. While it succeeded in helping correctly identify the symptoms, it did nothing to cure the stigma that links mental illness with unpredictability or danger.
Other efforts, however, have been very helpful. Instead of trying to decrease the negative connotations associated with mental illness, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival focused on the positive contributions from those with mental illness, cites an APA study.
The event focused on the fact that those with mental illness are generally active and useful members of society. The APA research suggests that meeting and humanizing people with mental illness does more to decrease the negative stigma than anything else.
O’Neill explains there’s more to it. It’s about helping people understand that life situations can cause mental distress.
“Struggling with a mental illness is no different than dealing with another type of medical illness. If a person is experiencing a medical problem, they would seek help from a medical professional. We encourage individuals to do the same when they are experiencing symptoms related to a mental illness,” says O’Neill.
“In the same vein, if you’re dealing with bouts of sadness, having difficulty maintaining your everyday responsibilities, feel hopeless or helpless, please seek treatment,” recommends O’Neill.
“And it’s important to seek treatment as early as possible, so you can avoid hospitalization and an interruption of lifestyle. Early intervention is critical,” she adds.