As our society begins to reverse the long standing stigma against mental health issues, a recent study brings to light that those who are afflicted by mental illnesses are not among the minority. According to the longitudinal study conducted in New Zealand, 83% of participants experienced some mental affliction between the ages of 11 and 38. While this study is a step in the right direction, will it engender change in the public’s perception towards mental health issues?
The stigma against mental health issues is arguably one of the biggest drivers behind chronic mental health problems. There is an inequality in how society views physical and mental illness. With physical illness, we are forgiven for not having any control over what ailment we may have; with even accidents that could have been prevented accounted for as ‘bad luck’. When we are suffering from the flu or a broken bone, we are given due consideration to take the time we need to return to full health.
However, with mental health issues, we are presented with an ailment which we cannot see, therefore does the problem even exist? There is a damaging myth that suggests that those with mental health issues have made the choice to be ill. It is, therefore, their responsibility to ‘just get over it’. This ignorant attitude fails to recognise the complexity of our brains. With increasing research into the issues of mental health we are seeing that the causes are varied; from biological imbalances, to the result of a long-term physical health condition. We have about as much control over getting a mental health problem as we do getting a viral disease. While preventative measures can be taken to avoid both types of illness, we are never truly immune.
Societal stigma therefore, serves to make an existing vulnerability a chronic problem. To return to the physical health comparison, social stigma could be equated to a doctor telling a person to walk on a broken leg. This both fails to address the problem, and causes the issue to worsen. However, societal stigma goes further than that in that it prevents the person from seeing a health professional in the first place. People with a mental health illness are made to feel as though they should be embarrassed for their ‘weakness’, or apologetic to those that they inconvenience; and therefore, commonly do not accept help. In the extreme cases, societal discrimination results in the violation of people’s human rights as they are subject to violence, physical restraint and denial of their basic needs.
This takes us back to the title of this piece, “You are not alone”. According to this study, 3 in 4 of us will experience some form of mental health issue in our lifetime. By bringing the extensive reach of mental health issues to the forefront, we can encourage those suffering to vocalise their issues without fear of judgement. We need to adopt an openness about mental health issues as a legitimate cause for concern. With honest discourse about challenging topics, such as depression and anxiety, we can show the appropriate compassion and understanding to those who are vulnerable. Mental health issues do not have to be lifelong sentences of struggle. In the same way that we can treat a broken bone, or provide medicine for chronic diseases, there are treatments for mental health issues that can greatly improve a person’s quality of life. It is crucial that society accepts their responsibility in the proliferation of the problem. Let us provide the crutches for those with mental health issues to stand on, so that they can be supported back to health.