Let’s End The Stigma

I was sad to hear that the ‘Time to Change’ campaign that’s been running for the past 14 years, to help end mental health stigma and discrimination, ended in March this year. The campaign, ran by two of the biggest mental health charities, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, received a letter from Government of their decision to end funding.

The ‘Time to Change’ campaign has successfully changed the attitudes of thousands of people on mental health. However, whether it’s in the workplace, school, university, at home, within institutions or simply down the pub with your mates, stigma still exists. ‘Time to change’ stated that much to their disappointment, the government did not outline their plans to address mental health stigma and discrimination into the future. Raising their concerns that attitudes to mental health are likely to deteriorate, resulting in many people not seeking help when they need it most.  

This was the inspiration behind this month’s blog. How can we build a world where mental health is normalised and spoken about freely, without fear of judgment? How can we get the balance between awareness, education and the right support being available, with empowering individuals to prioritise and take care of their own mental wellbeing? Enabling people to feel empowered to put their minds first and seek support without being held back by the fear of stigma.

What steps can we ALL take to help keep the legacy of ‘Time to Change’ going?

Firstly it’s important to look at WHY stigma exists? A lack of understanding and education, misconceptions, differences in upbringings and cultural norms, ignorance, a reluctance to accept or acknowledge a problem, feeling awkward or embarrassed, and the typically British attitude of ‘stiff upper lip’…are possibly a few of the reasons!

The journey towards stigma often starts in our early years. I was once working as a nanny and was in the park one day. Across from where I was stood at the swings, there was another boy at the top of a climbing frame who had started crying, afraid of climbing down. His Dad started to say, “don’t be a girl…come on mate…big boy’s don’t cry”.  I looked across at the little boy and saw the fear in his face, as well the desperation to try and stop the tears, in order to please his Dad and avoid the added layer of shame for being something that ‘he shouldn’t be’.

Right there in that seemingly small moment, that little boy is introduced to mental health stigma. To the narrative and conditioning of it not being OK for boys to cry or show their emotions.

It’s often these very messages, projected onto the delicate minds of children and teenagers that stick like superglue into adulthood. Impacting how a person makes sense of themselves, their thoughts, emotions and world around them. As well as the willingness or unwillingness to speak about it. Influencing how they relate to their own mental health, as well as that of others. Both of which can feed stigma.

Messages throughout our lives either that we experience directly or ones portrayed in the media, can play into the stigma projected or experienced later in life. So it’s important to think about the language we use and messages conveyed, as a way of tackling stigma and changing the narrative around mental health. Men’s in particular, given that it still seems to be far less accepting for men to talk and yet suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

The masculine driven notion of “man up” is quite literally costing lives. It’s time to change the narrative.

When it comes to language, rather annoyingly I feel we are lacking a word for depression. It’s used interchangeably at the moment, to either describe a low mood or moment of sadness about your favourite TV programme coming to an end, with a real, genuine and serious mental health condition. Is it any wonder that this feeds into the confusion, scepticism and stigma surrounding depression?

As a general rule, it’s worth watching out for the use of mental health conditions as adjectives. For example, have you ever found yourself saying, “My friend is so OCD” or describing someone’s mood as bipolar? Using mental health conditions as adjectives really undermines the seriousness of those conditions and can feed misunderstanding and stigma. Hearing the phrase “I’m so depressed” in reference to feeling sad about the weather always touches a bit of nerve for me! But I get it. “Depressed and depressing” have long been used to describe something bad and I think as previously mentioned, it would take a whole new word to work on that one! But being mindful of the language we use can be a relatively easy and immediate thing we can collectively do, to help reduce stigma and change attitudes.

Another factor is a lack of understanding. The less we know and understand about something, the more likely we are to make judgments. If we aren’t taught about something and haven’t experienced it ourselves, it’s easy to make assumptions. So effective and widespread education and mental health awareness training is so important when it comes to breaking mental health stigma. I think its vital that mental health becomes a mandatory part of the UK education system if we are going to reduce the impact of mental health suffering and equip young people to deal with the world they’re growing up into.

Something else to remain mindful of is comparison! The amount of times I’ve heard “well X is going through so much worse, than X and they’re not depressed” This is the perfect example of a lack of understanding. Mental health is complex and nuanced. It can affect people in different ways and is very individual. Comparing when it comes to mental health is not helpful. Instead we can make space for everyone’s unique and own suffering, whether you ‘get it’ or not….we can all be kind.

Compassion over comparison!

Myths and misconceptions! Knowing that OCD isn’t just being super tidy or eating disorders aren’t just about wanting to be thin, is well known and understood amongst mental health professionals but for the general population, perhaps less so. Another classic misconception is “how can X be depressed when they have a great life?” – if it were the external circumstances of our lives that kept us sane, then beautiful celebrities with all of the money and comforts in the world, would be the happiest humans alive right? It takes an open and empathic mind to understand many mental health conditions or to make sense of a person’s self destructive behaviours.

Be open enough to let go of misconceptions and brave enough to challenge them when they come up in conversation.

The Mental Health Movement. Over recent years, there have been a number of famous people who have spoken out about their own mental health difficulties. This has been really helpful in raising awareness and dispelling myths. Even the royals, such as Prince Harry, have spoken honestly about their emotional struggles and coping strategies such as alcohol to deal with the emotional pain of losing his Mum. With such a large reach, celebrities, if done responsibly, can have a real positive impact on reducing stigma. A platform to normalise, inspire and encourage people to talk.

But it doesn’t just stop at famous people; you and I can make a difference too. I have been truly inspired by various mental health campaigners, advocates and just ordinary people sharing their stories through books, blogs and social media accounts over recent years. The sharing of personal accounts of mental health is key in reducing stigma. I’ve learnt from sharing my own experiences, it has a snowball type effect, in terms of one conversation, leads to another and another. One person’s honesty encourages another person’s honesty. All of this can help lead to a person seeking the help they need in order to recover and go on to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Like a ripple effect, stigma starts to dissipate and mental health normalised.

Mental health difficulties affect 1 in 4 people in the UK so there really is no need to feel alone. Also 1 in 1 of us experience thoughts, feelings and emotions so we actually ALL experience mental health! However, fear of stigma stops many from opening up about their struggles; believing they need to just ‘man up’. Feeling isolated and alone is a common symptom of mental health conditions anyway so when coupled with not being able to talk about it; it’s this that people with mental health difficulties describe as the most difficult aspect.

By opening up conversations, we can collectively play a part in breaking down stereotypes, aid recovery and break stigma.

What’s interesting when it comes to health is the disparity which still exists between our physical and mental health.  When was the last time you or someone you know talked about having a headache, a bad cold, the flu, or a sickness bug? Or Covid! Probably not that long ago right? We overhear conversations all the time about our physical health. Whether it’s over coffee with a friend or making a cup of tea in the staffroom at work, we often find it acceptable and OK to speak about our physical health out in the open.

However, when was the last time you overheard a colleague talking about their mental health or freely saying to a friend, I can’t make tonight as I have a therapy session? Or explaining to your manager, the REAL reason you need some time off, rather than making up a physical health reason? We’re all guilty of it. Keeping the nature of mental health secretive, keeps the stigma and associated shame going.

Perhaps tackling stigma first starts with us? Fear or our own insecurities can be a driving force behind judgement and consequential stigma. Putting down or judging someone else’s mental health struggles, as a way of masking our own or wanting to avoid the discomfort that our own thoughts and emotions might be causing us, is really common. So perhaps one of the most poignant areas of tackling stigma is to start with ourselves.

To turn inwards and develop a deeper awareness of ourselves. Perhaps this is where we need to start, before delving into different opinions and trying to change things externally. I wonder if we all spent a bit more time understanding our own minds and mental health, maybe we would be more understanding of others and start to alleviate mental health stigma and suffering naturally?

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.– Barack Obama

If we built the skills to feel comfortable turning towards painful thoughts and emotions, rather than pacifying them with external fixes, such as alcohol, drugs, comfort eating or an excessive need to keep continually busy and distracted, then maybe we would have more patience and understanding for other people’s emotional and mental distress.

Perhaps by developing an acceptance of what it really means to be human, rather than what we’re often lead to believe; an unrealistic ability to be ‘super-human’, we would alleviate the stigma we attach to both ourselves and others when it comes to mental health?