TW: mention of suicide
Humans experience life largely by making meaning out of what they take in through their senses. The information a person receives and more importantly, what they pay attention to is important for many reasons – the simplest to understand is perhaps the evolutionary need to recognise what is familiar and safe, and what isn’t. A popular theory about how we interpret this difference is called the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy. Based on our experiences, we tend to make a so-called ‘image’ of what ‘us’ (with respect to mental illness, perceived often as ‘normal’) and ‘them’ (perceived as not ‘normal’) look like and base our responses to both accordingly.
What is once perceived as different from normal may be associated with ‘stigma’ – a quality that renders ‘them’ deeply discredited; tainted with feelings of shame, embarrassment and even disgust. With respect to mental health and illness, the impact of stigma can be strong enough to elicit these feelings along multiple directions – from someone who is ‘normal’ towards someone who isn’t or appears to not be so, within a person who is living with an illness, the family and professional caregivers of such persons, etc.
Persons being thus stigmatized would likely experience a reduced quality of life, due to ostracision, discrimination in different life aspects and being subjected to neglect and violence, making disclosure about mental health conditions far less likely. Disclosure in turn, is imperative if an individual wishes to seek help and support from family, friends, professionals or others, which makes stigma one of the major barriers for accessing mental healthcare services.
The situation for a person living with an illness is thus made from bad to worse due to stigma, as the delay in treatment can cause further deterioration in health, increase in recovery time and an overall loss of productive years for the individual and within their population. Withdrawal or isolation due to stigma makes it harder for them to reach out for social support, when the presence of social support has been known as a predictor for better mental health across populations and ages.
Stigma is mediated by the values and beliefs found in a culture, such as conformity to norms, keeping the family’s honor intact by keeping things within the family, perfectionism, etc. by way of shaping our ability to identify and understand symptoms, appropriate methods of treatment, realities of recovery, and other aspects of mental health. Such beliefs are often sustained by the negative and inaccurate portrayal of mental health and illness in the media. Various outlets are known to perpetuate the image of mental illness as something ‘dangerous’, ‘violent’, ‘criminal’, even as it has now been scientifically established that individuals living with a mental illness are more likely to be a victim to violence than a perpetrator.
A frequently prevalent occurrence that is also frequently marred by stigmatizing beliefs is that of suicide: descriptors like ‘tragic’ and ‘drastic’ are often used after suicide is completed, however, not many would know to recognize the signs that lead up to an attempt. The latter observation may be fueled by the belief that the occurrence of suicide, like other mental health concerns, is seemingly ‘infectious’ by nature, and will spread the more you notice or talk about it. Multiple studies have in fact found the opposite to be true – the more spaces there are for an individual to safely share about the challenges they are facing, the less likely an attempt at suicide would become.
Seeing as mental health stigma is also supported by systemic, legal and infrastructural systems (for instance, how suicide was only recently decriminalized in India, but even now its statistics are reported by the National Crime Records Bureau), there is potential for the individual to educate and create changes such that mental health can be reduced, if not eradicated.
Its important to keep a check on your own stigma, and while reading up on how varied the experience of mental illness can be for different individuals, it is also possible to reduce stigma by reaching out and speaking with persons living with mental illness – research suggests that increased contact with someone from the previously mentioned ‘them’ category, often leads to development of empathy towards them and a better understanding of their concerns.
This article was written by a mental health professional. But we were humans long before we trained as professionals, and so are always looking to learn better! If you found that any of the above is inaccurate, irrelevant or unhelpful, or would like to suggest ways to make this article more helpful in any way, please let us know in the comments below.
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