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I recently produced and presented an episode on my radio program ‘But I Feel Good’ …talking about pink elephants and black dogs called All About Stigma. It got me thinking about all the areas in life where people can experience stigma.
Stigma, like many concepts we hear a lot about, can be hard to describe when we are asked for a specific definition. As part of the program I offered a definition I found while researching the episode. Stigma is a mark of disgrace. This definition and the areas in life and groups of people who experience stigma created a head smackingly confusing moment.
This definition started me down a rabbit hole of definitions. The noun disgrace implies a loss of reputation or respect as the result of a dishonourable action. The verb is to bring shame on or discredit too.
So if I experience stigma as a result of being diagnosed with a mental illness I have lost my reputation or respect because of an illness with which I have been diagnosed. Does this happen for people who are diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or who break their leg? NO. I am at a loss as to how my diagnosis is a ‘dishonourable action’. The verb application would imply that shame and discredit would be a result of my diagnosis, as if it was a choice rather than a result of hereditary factors, brain chemistry or environmental impacts.
So leaving those definitions aside let me tell you about how stigma, as it relates to mental illness, plays out.
First up there’s what’s known as self-stigma. That’s when a person with mental illness feels like they are an embarrassment, that they are weak, not good enough or perhaps if they just tried a little harder they wouldn’t feel the way they do.
Self-stigma can result in spiralling self-worth, prevent people from looking for ways to feel different or from seeking professional help. At its most tragic end self-stigma can end in suicide. The pervasive, prevailing thoughts in these circumstances range from life not being worth living through to the world and all those I know being better off if I were not in the world.
It may not be surprising to you that self-stigma can be dramatically increased by public or community stigma. Community stigma can show up in many seemingly harmless ways or it can be blatantly cruel. It can sound like jokes about “the lunatics taking over the asylum”, it can be the careless use of words like crazy or nuts. It can be experienced as people rudely dismissing your ideas or conversation about mind health matters.
Community stigma has a significant impact on people’s willingness to be open and comfortable talking about mental health issues, theirs, ours or generally speaking. It can also impact on people’s willingness to seek the help they require to improve their mental health. Mental health now costs $12billion annually in lost productivity in Australian businesses. The sooner everyone feels comfortable seeking help for mental illness the sooner that figure will decrease as well as seeing a decrease in the suicide rates in Australia.
Education and awareness can move people into new ways of interacting with people who are living with mental illness. Alongside that shift is the possibility that more people living with mental illness will step bravely and resiliently forward and call a stop to the less than helpful utterances and sometime uninformed opinions of those who have not experienced a mental illness.
Because your Mind Health Matters…