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The Stereotype of Stigma: A New Take

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Mental health. The phrase makes you want to turn on your heels and run, or brace yourself for another lecture on why the existence of stigma means, surprise surprise, the world we've created is far from perfect. But what if we went back to basics, took away all the hype and controversy, and just saw everyone as individuals? My suspicion is that the majority of us would be surprised by what we found!

Someone living with cancer is not defined by their tumour. Someone living with diabetes is not defined by their sugar levels. So why should someone living with a mental health problem be defined by how they are feeling? Anyone with a physical illness remains the person they always were, and are accepted as such. Is a mental illness really so very different? Whittled down to the bare bones, the sole difference that remains is simply the location of the problem: body or brain. Yet where physical sufferers are seen as no less human, mental sufferers are too often stripped of that simple right.

Far from suggesting that it is small-minded for a non-sufferer to struggle with the inability to see the symptoms of mental health disorders, I can understand that this is hard! I understand, because it is the same problem that those who suffer from such disorders have! On the days when the depression creeps up on me again, I want to curl up in my room and hide away from civilisation. I often daren't explain how I feel to anyone - not because I'm afraid they won't believe me, but because I don't believe myself. The reason mental ill-health sufferers are stereotyped as 'in denial' is because without any physical signs to show for it, it is too easy to fall into the trap of feeling unworthy of the term 'unwell' - hence the lack of motivation or outright refusal to seek help!

No-one can see what goes on in my mind behind the visage of the perfectly happy, easy-going student. Likewise I will never know how it feels to lose control over the intense pull of schizophrenic compulsions or to plummet from the ecstasy of bipolar disorder. 'Mental health' covers an unending list of emotions and struggles, and yet the generic label itself serves as a barrier which often prevents us from seeing through the exterior to the real person underneath.

I wonder whether there are footballers with artistic talents that are never recognised because we focus on one aspect to their lives, or politicians who are striving for good but go unheard because they are tarred with the same brush as those who have made mistakes? People who have mental ill-health do not stop being people! By failing to see further than their condition we are missing out on the wonders of their personalities, abilities and potential! Why should the inability to see a person's symptoms stop us from seeing the rest of them - the traits that would still be recognised if their pain was external rather than internal?

I'm not suggesting a large scale overhaul of society's embedded views and habits. I'm simply saying that if we measured people on their personality and their merits rather than their symptoms and the title of their condition then maybe, just maybe, we could start to take steps towards the tolerant and integrated culture we claim to want.

Mental health. Do we still turn and run? Or do we embrace our differences?

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