STIGMA AND MENTAL HEALTH

In ancient Greece bodily signs or stigmata were cut or burned onto people’s bodies to mark them as different. Today we use the word stigma to refer to the attitude people often have about others who suffer from mental health problems. How often does the assumption we make about people change when we find out that they have schizophrenia, depression, mania or anxiety? We view people with mental disorders in a less favourable regard and negative fashion.

HOW CAN STIGMA ARISE?

Stigma arises in many ways. Sometimes people with mental disorders can behave differently or come to one’s attention more easily because of their manner and demeanor. Sometimes the effect of medication can be seen in their posture or by way of a noticeable tremor in their hands or fingers. Sometimes they may dress in an unkempt or bizarre fashion.

When we observe that people are different we often make judgments and these judgments can be negative and prejudiced. These attitudes about people with mental illness occur because we lack knowledge or education about these disorders. We hear our family and friends criticizing such people. We read negative and biased reports about mental health issues on the television news or in newspapers, and we watch people with supposed mental illness in television dramas or films being portrayed as dangerous, violent or “psychopathic.” This often leads us to develop assumptions about people with a psychiatric diagnosis, which are inaccurate and not based on fact.

For instance, many people believe that mental illness is a sign of weakness in an individual or as a result of laziness or a lack of will power. Some people think that sufferers should be able to just “snap out of it” and that it occurs because they don’t try hard enough.

Mental illness is not a sign of weakness; even the most robust and strongest of individuals have a 1 in 4 chance at some point in their life of developing a mental disorder. Other popular misconceptions are that people with mental health concerns are dangerous and out of control and are likely to attack. In fact they are more likely themselves to suffer from violence and assault because of their own vulnerability.

A person with a mental health disorder may be you, a family member, a friend, a neighbor or the person standing next to you in line at the grocery store. Mental illness does not choose whom to strike, but rather we are all vulnerable to endure mental health concerns due to a combination of the stress in our environments and our biological make-up. If your mental health concerns impair your ability to maintain daily functioning, then you need to ask for help. This is not a matter of shame or pride, but rather of quality of life.

Research around the world has shown that there are many myths and misapprehensions that develop in society about mental illness. As a result of this, those with mental health problems are frequently discriminated against. They are less likely to have employment or access to education, good housing, proper representation in the justice system, contentment, happiness, fulfilled and enriched lives, and so much more.

REDUCING STIGMA

So what can be done to reduce and eliminate the stigma that so many people with mental illness suffer from? Government, health care professionals and advocates of the sufferers around the world have begun to work to eliminate and change people’s attitudes.

Successful anti-stigma campaigns are ongoing in countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. Educational sessions are held at schools, colleges, societies and clubs. Promotional fun days and rallies help the message to get across. Leaflets and educational materials are made freely available and distributed so that all members of society have access to information about mental illness. The media are encouraged to report and reflect on people with mental health issues without sensationalizing, over-exaggerating or stereotyping their stories.

In television, film producers, writers and actors are urged to show positive portrayals of characters with mental disorders. Indeed, story lines involving characters with mental health problems in two popular soap operas in Britain and Australia did much to change the view of the community in the late 1990’s in those countries.

So what can be done in Bermuda? It is true to say that stigma and prejudice continue to occur. Over the years, Mental Health Awareness Week has aimed to promote, inform and educate the public about mental disorders. This year the campaign is targeting young people. Young people are often most at risk of developing mental health problems, and are least likely to seek help or support when it is required. Young people are also likely to suffer the most from the stigma of mental illness.

We must all work hard to make stigma a thing of the past – the ancient past. It falls on all members of society to question prejudice, develop an open mind and to at least ensure that their actions do not hinder someone’s else’s attempt to lead their lives in a fulfilled, enriched and meaningful way.

Dr. David Price completed his training in England and has been with the Bermuda Hospitals Board for three years. He is a consultant adult psychiatrist at St. Brendan’s Hospital.

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