By Samantha Plink
One in four people in the world will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Yet nearly two thirds of those people never seek help from a health professional, largely due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect people regardless of their gender, ethnicity, economic background and even family history. Like most diseases, mental illness has many causes, including genetics and other biological, environmental and social factors. A common myth is that mental illness can be overcome with simple willpower. People with depression are told to “cheer up” and “be positive”, and those with anxiety are told to stop worrying so much. But as with most diseases, mental illness is no one’s fault and not a result of personal weakness. Nor can it be cured by positive thinking or willpower. Proper treatment is needed. There are a range of effective treatment options available, from medication to psychosocial therapies and meditative practices, which allow those who live with mental illness the opportunity to lead full and productive lives.
One of the largest barriers preventing access to proper treatment is the stigma associated with mental illness. Despite the fact that mental illness is incredibly common, it is still subject to prejudice, ignorance and fear. These attitudes can result in people who suffer from mental illness becoming isolated, excluded from everyday activities, have difficulties in gaining or keeping employment, be reluctant to seek help, and have negative effects on their physical health. Many people who have experienced this discrimination say that it can have a devastating impact, and can be a bigger burden than the illness itself. Stigma can lead to a relapse, or worsening, of a person’s mental illness. It makes many people feel ashamed or embarrassed and prevents them from seeking help, because they fear the reactions of the people they are seeking support from.
What can I do?
There are a number of ways individuals can take action to challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s often the everyday things that make a difference, including the way you behave around friends, family and colleagues.
Take care of yourself and your own
Mental health starts with each individual. Take care of your own mental health, whether through meditation, medication or seeing a professional mental health practitioner, and encourage your loved ones to do the same. Integrate mental wellness into everyday life and set an example that those around you can follow.
Talk about it
One of the main problems contributing to the stigma of mental illness is the fact that people are embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it. Speak to your friends and family, whether about your personal struggles or on a more general level. By incorporating discussions of mental illness into everyday conversations, you can help change attitudes and demonstrate that, like any other disease, mental illness nothing to be ashamed of.
Watch your language
Be careful of the words you use. Even those not intended to be offensive can be hurtful to someone suffering from a mental illness.
Use your voting power
Vote for politicians who aim to work towards ending mental health discrimination in your country or local area. If the issue doesn’t seem to be on any politician’s radar – write to them and put it there.
It can be extremely difficult, and sometimes feel risky, to talk about your mental health problems. Be sensitive towards people who open up to you. Listen and be non-judgemental. Don’t try and tell them that you know exactly how they feel – everyone experiences mental illness differently, so keep the focus on them.
Help them seek support
The hardest step is often asking for help. If someone is suffering from mental illness, help them seek support. Encourage them to see a professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or mental health social worker. You can even offer to accompany them to the appointment if it makes them feel better. Help them research where they can go for help, as sometimes it can feel overwhelming and difficult to know where to start.
Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones
Lastly, don’t forget to apply the above advice to yourself and remind your loved ones to do the same. Don’t just try and be strong or assume it will get better. Just like any other illness, it’s not your fault and is unlikely to be resolved with willpower or determination. With proper treatment, people experiencing mental illness can live happy, successful lives. Acknowledging that mental illness is not a personal weakness, and can be treated, is the first step towards ending the stigma.
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