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IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK – Part 2

“Despite being commonplace, too many people with mental health problems still face stigma, prejudice and discrimination”. Luciana Berger (Former MP for Liverpool Wavertree, UK).

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of seeking help early on when you are struggling with mental health, and indeed physical and emotional health. I struggled to write that post as I had so much that I wanted to say on the subject. I found a way through it by splitting what I have to say into more than one post. This time I want to focus on stigma and discrimination around mental health.

Stigma and discrimination can contribute to worsening symptoms and reduced likelihood of getting treatment. This can, in turn, leads to a range of symptoms including reduced hope, isolation, lower self-esteem, increased psychiatric symptoms, difficulties with social relationships, reduced likelihood of staying with treatment and difficulties with family and work.

This can be all the more common in men. As Mauro Ranallo (Canadian Sports Announcer) said, “I believe the biggest stigma right now, with mental health, is that a lot of men are not talking about it”. Typically, men are slower or less likely to seek medical help with physical and mental health issues.

Mind (UK mental health charity) provide support for those with mental illness or those caring for them. Meanwhile, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (a US based group) has some useful suggestions about what we can all do to help reduce the stigma of mental illness. These include:
* Talk openly about mental health. It’s not something to be ashamed of.
* Help to educate others. Challenge misperceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
* Be aware of language used. Words matter. Avoid and challenge the use of derogatory, judgemental or stigmatising language.
* Promote equality and parity between physical and mental illness. For example, draw comparisons to how someone with cancer or diabetes is treated.
* Show compassion and care for those with mental illness.
* Be honest about treatment. Normalise mental health treatments, just like other health care treatments.

One further, very powerful, approach is to choose empowerment over shame – “I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. To me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.” Val Fletcher (Deputy Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health).

If you, or someone you know, is feeling stigmatised, here are some ways you can deal with it. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, get the treatment you need. Try not to let the fear of being labelled with a mental illness stop you from getting the help you need. Sadly, mental health issues are rarely something you can deal with on your own.

Do not believe the hype. When you hear or experience something often enough, you start to believe it. Do not let other people’s ignorance influence the way you feel about yourself. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and is not a sign of weakness. Talking about your mental health issues with healthcare professionals will help you on your road to recovery or management. Even understanding what the issue is, that it’s not unique to you, and that there are well used treatment options can help to reduce anxiety and isolation.

Many people with mental illness choose to isolate themselves from the world. This can be a block to getting the help they need. Reaching out to people you trust, such as family, friends or religious leaders, will mean you get the support you need. Some companies offer confidential help and advice to their employees. Connecting with others can be very valuable. Doing so, either online or in person, can help you deal with feelings of isolation and make you realise that you are not alone in your feelings and experiences.

Remember, your illness does not define you. You wouldn’t say, ‘I am cancerous’. This simply change to the way you talk about your illness can be very powerful. So, instead of saying ‘I’m a schizophrenic’, say ‘I have schizophrenia’. It’s a condition, it happens, it’s not what I am. There is real power in language.
Don’t give up on people who seem judgemental or insensitive. It’s rarely personal. Their language or judgements often come from a lack of understanding or information rather than anything else. If you feel able, then education and inform them. Importantly, do not believe that their views have anything to do with you personally.

So, as Mark Twain (American Writer) said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”. Reach out, talk to someone and get the help you need.