It's World Mental Health Day 2014 this Friday, and despite the fact that one in four people will suffer from mental health issues in their lifetime, there still exists a damaging stigma towards having problems located in the mind.
Squashing mental health stigma is good for the whole of society, whether you come at it from a humane or an economic angle. Whether you want people to be well because it feels right in your heart, or you want them to get better so they can become productive, contributing members of society, eliminating mental health stigma is becoming more necessary than ever; because without eradicating stigma we will soon have a mental health crisis on our hands ‒ if we don't already.
Life is becoming more stressful, and communities are less cohesive than ever before, meaning that more people are suffering from mental health issues and not receiving the support and care they need.
If attitudes don't change, I predict that even more than a quarter of the population will soon be affected by mental health issues.
What problems does mental health stigma cause?
Stigma often makes mental health issues worse, with prejudice and discrimination causing many people with mental health problems to avoid or drop out of treatment, because they feel too embarrassed to pursue or continue it.
Research has shown that worrying what others think can make friends and family pull away when someone has a mental health issue, too, leaving them feeling even more isolated.
Mental health discrimination is also embedded into our society, with inadequate funding given to its research or to the most essential services for mental health sufferers. People working within health services may themselves be unconsciously swayed by general public prejudice, treating people with mental health issues less compassionately than they should.
Stigma can cause people with mental health issues unnecessary distress and delay to their healing. Mental health issues can be solved or stabilised when caring, effective treatment is given. And you'll never know just how relieving that is until your turn comes, if you're one of those who goes on to experience mental health problems.
So how do we change our attitudes towards mental health?
As a therapist, and someone who suffered from a multitude of mental health issues myself in the past, I think we need to stop looking at people who suffer from mental health issues as people who are not functioning.
In fact, anyone who has a mental health disorder is actually functioning perfectly as a result of what they may have been through. People don't just 'get' mental health issues; they are formed as a response to the hand that life has dealt them.
Whether we're talking about something as commonplace as depression or as specialised as schizophrenia, in my experience, mental health issues are either caused by, or triggered by, difficult or traumatic experiences in life. These can be anything from poverty or isolation, to too much stress, to sexual or physical abuse.
And what isn't caused by environmental or socio-economic factors, is determined by biology. And no-one can help how their brain works, any more than they can choose the colour of their eyes.
Biology is also influenced by childhood environment, which is why it never surprises me that most people I treat, even those considered to have purely biologically-caused mental illnesses, report difficult childhood experiences to me. When we deal with those, symptoms tend to improve dramatically.
So in all cases of mental health difficulty, the brain has done exactly what was needed to protect the person from what is considered to be a threat to survival. It doesn't feel nice to have a nervous breakdown, for example, but it's the body's way of sending the signal that it will not let the sufferer endure any more stress. It's a perfect survival mechanism.
Of course, the way that people with mental health problems are treated unkindly when they manifest their symptoms, turns this vital form of protection into a badge of shame. And unless a person who has undergone difficulties can access understanding, compassionate, effective help, they will go into a downward spiral, rather than taking a break and getting their health and wellbeing back.
Whatever causes mental health prejudice, whether it is fear or misunderstanding, the resulting stigma shows up as unkindness and an uncaring attitude. This is the last thing a person who has experienced suffering needs when they've already got difficulties to cope with. Mental health stigma is like salt in already smarting wounds.
How would a new attitude change things?
If society treated mental ill health as a normal and vital response to suffering, the public would hopefully be more amenable to understanding and gently accommodating the mental health issue, rather than being scared of it. Mental health workers would consistently care for people using the highest levels of compassion, rather than becoming frustrated or fatigued by patients.
If society took on this new attitude to mental health, then actually having a mental health issue would feel far less distressing to undergo. Those going through difficulties would see themselves as survivors rather than victims, and would not be afraid to seek and complete treatment. The individual, their family, friends and the rest of society would all benefit.
If a large proportion of people will endure a period of mental ill health, it makes sense that everyone starts developing better attitudes towards other people who are suffering right now, and insisting that government policies back that up. Because even if you're not currently the one feeling the mental strain, you, or one of your loved ones, soon might be.
Image 1 supplied by PublicDomainPictures
Image 2 supplied by Kai Stachowiak
Image 3 supplied by Gerd Altmann
Image 4 supplied by Anita Peppers