Over the last few years I have spent the majority of my working life speaking to young people about mental health in schools (about 19000 young people in around 80 school to give you a ball park figure). This means that I have enjoyed hearing many perspectives and tried my best to answer 100s of questions (some more straight forward than others) on the matter.
The time I spend in schools is dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental illness. As a reaction to my job description I have had many people ask about the best way to address the stigma that they either experience or witness in their own lives. While I am far from an expert in the field of mental health there a few things I have picked up about addressing stigma along the way.
Maybe I should start from the beginning…
What is stigma?
Sorry to do this to you but sometimes a definition is a necessary evil. Here we go…
‘Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labelled by their illness they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice which leads to negative actions and discrimination.’ – Mental Health Commission
In terms on mental health and mental illness the most obvious form of stigma is language. ‘Psycho’ ‘schizo’ and ‘attention seeker’ are all terms describing people with a mental illness that I hear on a daily basis. These terms are one of the examples of the stigma that still exists today. These terms aren’t necessarily used because young people want to contribute to the stigma around mental illness but it can usually be attributed to a lack of knowledge around how much of an impact these words might have.
What are the impacts of stigma?
People who experience stigma can often feel isolated and are less likely to seek help. These impacts can be a barrier to someone’s recovery. Not only does stigma have a massive impact on people experiencing a mental illness but also their friends and family. Mental health carers can also feel isolated by stigma and can feel embarrassed to speak about what they are experiencing. This why HelpingMinds places great importance on reducing the stigma around mental illness.
What can we do?
In addition to the stigma reduction programs we run at HelpingMinds (click here to find out more about these programs) I also aim to address the stigma around mental illness whenever the opportunity arises both in my professional and personal life (which is quite often).
Here are my top three tips on how to reduce the stigma that you may witness in your life:
1. Get the facts: If you see or experience consistent stigma around the same illnesses or situations do some research. Getting information from reputable sources means that you could inform people of the correct facts about mental illness rather than letting them share incorrect and potentially hurtful information on the topic. The HelpingMinds website has access to fact sheets and information on different mental illnesses (you can find these fact sheets here).
2. Be polite: When we feel strongly about something we can be tempted to provide an angry response to the stigma that we witness. In my experience getting frustrated takes up a lot of your energy and people usually zone out or match your frustration so your point is often lost. What a waste of time and opportunity to talk about stigma! So staying calm and keeping your tone conversational is usually the best way to get your point across.
3. Ask for help: I know that myself and the staff at HelpingMinds are happy to answer any questions about mental health and stigma. Even if we don’t have the answers ourselves we can definitely point you in the right direction or help you get the facts. Another great organisation that focuses on the stigma around mental illness is SANE Australia. They have conducted extensive research around stigma and have a number of media campaigns that make the website worth a visit (https://www.sane.org/).
On that note, if we could help you in any way feel free to contact HelpingMinds to find more out about stigma or our services and programs you can send us an enquiry at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 9427 7100.
By Ashleigh Easthope – Mental Health Promotions Officer