How to deal with Stigma
Stigma involves any form of negative attitudes or discrimination against someone based on certain characteristics, such as a health condition or a mental illness. Although the term isn’t limited to mental conditions, mental health stigma is more prevalent and adverse.
This stigma makes the experience of a person already suffering from a mental illness more painful. It reduces the chances of people seeking out or receiving appropriate care and treatment. It is one of the significant risk factors contributing to poor mental health outcomes in the country. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, India lost more lives to suicide than coronavirus in 2020.
Why does stigma exist?
Stigma arose out of lack of understanding and fear. Mental illness has been misinterpreted for a major part of history. From being seen as a possession by the devil to being considered a punishment by God, treatment had been barbaric and inhuman. Although we have advanced a lot in terms of knowledge and treatment, the stigma has persisted.
Stigma is perpetuated by the misrepresentation of people with mental illnesses in mass media. They are often portrayed as violent and dangerous in movies. While research has shown that people with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Such misleading representations lead to misconceptions and discrimination.
What does Stigma look like?
Here are some examples of stigma:
- labelling a person with mental illness as ‘psychotic’ or ‘crazy’
- mocking someone for seeking help
- the misconception that people with mental illnesses are violent or dangerous
- media portrayal of people with mental illness as evil
- asking people with mental illness to just “get over it” or “try harder.”
How does stigma impact people with mental illness?
People with mental illness face serious and devastating consequences of stigma. They may be invalidated, treated differently or made to feel worthless. People often internalise this social stigma and start doubting themselves.
They may feel worthless or ashamed and choose not to seek treatment or turn to alcohol and drug abuse. This may form the belief that they are incapable of achieving their goals, leading to poorer treatment outcomes. A study conducted on 222 disability pensioners with mental illness showed that an increase in self-stigma predicted poorer recovery.
They may be excluded from social groups, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination, bullying and harassment. The fear of being stigmatised reduces the chances of people seeking help. Most mental illnesses tend to worsen without treatment. This may make it harder for them to recover.
How to deal with Stigma?
Dealing with stigma can sometimes feel more painful than the illness itself. Regardless, it is essential to focus on yourself and your mental health. Here are a few ways you can deal with stigma:
Don’t avoid seeking treatment
It takes courage to ask for help, but it is worth the effort. Don’t let the fear of being stigmatised or labelled stop you from seeking treatment. This will not only help you with your illness but will also help you deal with the stigma.
People who hold inaccurate stereotypes and discriminate against people with mental illness have little knowledge or experience of it. It is natural to start internalising the things we hear and experience often. But do not let other people’s ignorance govern the way you treat yourself. Be kind to yourself and remember that mental illness isn’t a weakness or something you can get rid of if you just “tried harder”. Seeking help is crucial.
Bust myths with facts
Stigma arises out of a lack of knowledge and understanding. Learn about mental health and also educate others. Keep some facts and statistics handy in case you hear some inaccurate stereotypes or false information.
Remember you are not your illness
Someone suffering from malaria does not become malaria. Do not define yourself by your illness; you are more than that. You can change the way you speak about it. For example, instead of saying “I’m bipolar”, you can say “I have bipolar disorder”. This will remind you and others that you are separate from your illness.
Connect with others
Many people might want to isolate themselves out of the fear of being judged. Reach out to someone you can trust to support you. It may also be helpful to join a support group. Interacting with people in a similar situation as yours can help you realise that you are not alone. You will also be able to learn novel ways to deal with your problems from others’ experiences.
Call out the stigma
There are many myths and stereotypes around mental illness. When you hear someone judging or making fun of someone with a mental illness, speak up against it. Assertively express yourself using facts and arm them with the correct information. People with mental health problems deserve to be respected and treated like everyone else.
How can we reduce stigma?
Everyone can help to create a mentally healthy and inclusive environment free from stigma and discrimination. We know that stigma arises out of a lack of information and understanding. The best way to manage that would be to educate oneself about mental health. You can learn facts about various mental illnesses and how they are treated. Share them with your family, friends and colleagues.
Get to know people who’ve experienced a mental illness or share your own story with others if you are comfortable. Sharing personal experiences with mental illness might leave a positive impact. It reinforces the fact that it is nothing to be ashamed of and encourages people to seek help.
Be mindful of how you speak about mental health problems. Do not judge or use any labels that might be discriminatory. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Speak up even when you hear someone else making a stereotypical comment or discriminating against someone with a mental illness.
There are many ways to spread awareness and reduce stigma on a more significant level. The Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 states that appropriate governments will conduct programs to reduce stigma around mental illness. Also ensure, that they are planned, designed, funded and implemented effectively.
Stigma has comparatively reduced with enhanced knowledge and understanding of mental illnesses. Today, more and more people are having conversations about mental health. Stigma will decline as we all raise our voices against it and become a healthier and more inclusive society.
Government of Western Australia. (2009, February). Stigma, Discrimination and Mental Illness. http://www.health.wa.gov.au/docreg/Education/Population/Health_Problems/Mental_Illness/Mentalhealth_stigma_fact.pdf
Ministry of Law and Justice. (2017). The Mental Healthcare Act (No. 10). https://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2017/175248.pdf
National Crime Records Bureau. (2020). Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India 2020. https://ncrb.gov.in/en/ADSI-2020
Oexle, N., Müller, M., Kawohl, W., Xu, Z., Viering, S., Wyss, C., Vetter, S., & Rüsch, N. (2017). Self-stigma as a barrier to recovery: a longitudinal study. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 268(2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-017-0773-2
Parcesepe, A. M., & Cabassa, L. J. (2012). Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States: A Systematic Literature Review. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 40(5). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10488-012-0430-z
What is stigma? Why is it a problem? National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/stigmafree