The stigma attached to mental health has been something that has bothered me for many years. Studying Psychology at university, I focussed on the stigma attached to Depression for my dissertation and it really opened my eyes. Interviewing people of various backgrounds and ages, one thing became clear – you don’t talk about anything to do with your mental health. People were scared to admit a weakness, today’s society puts so much emphasis on perfection, from body ideals to what car you drive. What it never does is reassure us that sometimes, it’s ok for something to be wrong and actually – this is normal. The damage of this is if you feel you aren’t what is expected this can lead to various mental health conditions such as Eating Disorders and Depression, without even realising it. Even if you notice yourself something is wrong, the cycle continues where you don’t feel you can talk about your situation to anybody, for fear of not being “Normal”. Even for conditions not influenced by your environment, the reluctance of being seen “different” prevents individuals seeking help.
In addition to not wanting to seem different, often the fear of being discriminated against prevents sufferers from seeking help. The stigma associated with disclosing mental health conditions is the same as that attached to physical disabilities. Unfortunately many dismiss these conditions as being less serious because you can not “see” the problem. During my interviews I found a patient who had received more support and understanding from work and friends when he broke his leg, than he did when telling them he had severe depression. Comments such as “everyone feels down sometimes” and “it’ll get better” made him feel isolated and rejected. When interviewing his family, they stated that they simply didn’t know how to deal with it. They wanted to be supportive but didn’t know what to do or say and feared making things worse dwelling on it. When you break a bone, the doctors tell you how to fix it, what to do and not to do and any help you may need. Unfortunately when it comes to mental health, the treatment is not as simple and no instructions are given on how to fix everything.
Even if you eventually are ready to seek help, many healthcare professionals do not have the time or understanding to do so. Unlike a symptom for a physical ailment, a great deal of diagnosing mental health conditions could be referred to as guesswork. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is consistently updated, with conditions renamed or moved to a different “category” of mental health. It is not surprising that sometimes it’s as confusing for the doctor to give an answer for why you feel a certain way. One patient admitted they were made to feel they were overreacting and couldn’t be depressed -the cause was not “severe” enough to cause such a condition. Experiences are subjective, what one person deems distressing another could brush off and not be affected. Therefore to suggest an experience insufficient to trigger depression simply leads the individual to feel they were right to be concerned about seeking help and prevents them talking about their situation. This patient later attempted to take her life. Only when she was in hospital did anybody finally believe her. It’s disturbing that a situation should ever deteriorate so drastically for anybody to willingly offer help.
Another factor to consider is patient involvement in their treatment. Often in medicine medical professionals assume they know the best cause of action regarding treating the condition – Understandably they went to medical school and studied for years, whereas you did not. However, admitting you have a mental health condition involves a great deal of trust. Thoroughly discussing the treatment options with the patient and allowing them to feel involved in the decision making process invites the individual to feel their feelings about moving forward matters. Something incredibly important if they are being treated involuntarily and may feel they have no control over their situation.
Mental health will always be a difficult topic to discuss, opening up about your innermost thoughts and feelings can leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable. Therefore every effort needs to be taken to reduce the stigma attached to admitting a mental health condition. Ensuring more knowledge is available for the public allows it to be seen as acceptable in society and enables friends and family to support the individual. The more well known the conditions become, those around a sufferer will be able to spot the signs and reach out to offer support and the sufferer will not feel judged. Perhaps then one day individuals will feel they can discuss mental health the way they discuss obtaining a football injury.