Stigma – What Is It?
I spend a lot of time talking about stigma in a number of my posts but I realise I’ve never actually defined it. I’ve never told you how stigmatisation feels. What it does to you. So I’d like to start.
The dictionary defines stigma as A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. Officially, I guess that’s what it means but I think there is a lot more to it. For example, how does it make people feel? What kind of response does it generate in people? Let’s take a look.
Mental Health Stigmatisation
This seems to be the most common occurrence of stigmatisation in our world today. It’s right up there with the stigma surrounding homosexuality or transgender people. Even looking through the example sentences in the dictionary, I have found numerous entries directly mentioning mental health as its example. It’s a big problem in today’s world.
I say it’s a big problem but why? What exactly is mental health stigmatisation and why is it such a big problem? Let’s take a look at a video project that the IWK Health Centre and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) made to help explain stigma.
So there you have a couple of different views. What do you think? Would you say you have a good definition of stigma? How do you think it feels?
Let’s take a look…
How Does It Feel?
Imagine you have the flu. You might visit the doctor so that you can get some kind of treatment for your illness. Sitting in the waiting room, you might see the other patients looking at you but you know they will see the runny nose, the red eyes and they will hear the sneezing and know that you’re ill. You might see other people who appear to have the flu or a cold, just like you. Then, when you see the doctor, he or she will immediately give you some kind of treatment for it and you’ll be on the mend in no time at all.
Now imagine you have depression. Already, going to visit the doctor takes a lot of effort because you know the condition is inside your head. Sitting in the waiting room, you might see other patients looking at you…and you know they can’t see that you’re ill. You’re not sneezing or coughing, you don’t have a cast or a sling and you have no outward physical signs that you are ill. Looking around, you see other people with those physical signs but you can’t see anyone sitting there with mental health problems. You feel alone. Then, when you see the doctor, he is reluctant to offer a firm diagnosis. He is reluctant to offer you a concrete form of treatment. The worst part, though…is that you know it will take a long time to get better.
Stigmatisation really feels a lot like loneliness. No one can fully understand what you’re going through, which means you’re alone in your struggle. Professionals pass you to and fro, from person to person, each one unwilling to take full responsibility of your treatment. If they do, they might get blamed later on when things don’t work.
It’s a difficult thing to deal with. You feel cut off, isolated, alone. You wish someone could come alongside you and understand how you feel but you know that can’t be. People can understand snippets of your journey but they can’t understand the full picture.
Imagine being afraid to speak up about your mental health for fear of what people would say. They might treat you differently or abandon you as soon as they find out that you have mental health troubles. You fear being judged, you fear being abandoned, you fear being let down. Going to the doctors, leaving the house or seeing friends, all these things start to become objects of fear in your mind.
You’re constantly afraid. Constantly worried. Constantly wondering what is going to change next.
You’re afraid they will say it’s all in your mind. As Jessica said in the video, when you have a broken bone, you can see the x-ray and see that it’s broken. With psychiatrics, there’s nothing you can see. So people don’t believe you. At least, you’re afraid they won’t believe you.
From the Community
On our Facebook page, I asked what the term “mental health stigmatisation” meant to people. I also got a few privately messaged responses. This is what they said:
“It’s the unwillingness to talk about mental health, which I’d say includes an unwillingness to talk perhaps to a mental health sufferer about it, and an unwillingness to confront the issue itself.” – Anonymous
“When people look at you different the minute you say you have a problem. Or don’t trust you when they did before (e.g. looking after your children). Or the way people don’t seem to recognise it as an illness at all. Also, there sometimes seems to be a perception of cognitive impairment, which again isn’t true.” – Cheryl
“Fear misunderstanding and unwillingness to accept or to think of mental health as something equal to physical health.” – Rebecca
“People not believing it’s a problem, thinking you are faking it and the attitude of ‘I get sad but it doesn’t stop me from doing things.'” – Amy
“A lack of empathy and compassion for another because they haven’t taken the time to understand the individual who has a differing mental health status to their own.” – Kate
Let’s End Stigma
So let’s start talking. Let’s end the stigma. Together, we can help other people get the help they need by allowing them to feel as though their illness matters.
Are you with me?
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