Debunking the Stigma around Mental Health
With the current COVID-19 crisis, health and hygiene are at the heart of governments’, institutions’ and individuals’ concerns. The UN’s WHO’s role and sometimes its failures are under a permanent spotlight, and so is the importance of health that is at the heart of the UN’s goals. The UN’s third SDG, Good Health and Wellbeing, focuses both on physical and mental health and wellbeing for all. This focus on mental health aligns with a general transition towards lifting taboos around mental illnesses, although stigma is still very present. During these complex times, shrouded by a general sentiment of panic and uncertainty, people are suffering not only on the physical health side but also mentally: many have lost jobs or are in precarious economical situations, others have experienced the death of loved ones or the disease itself, and undeniably, everyone’s everyday routine has been deeply affected by the pandemic. It is important for those of us who experience difficulties coping with the current situation to reach out for therapy if necessary.
Source: World Health Organization
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect one’s behaviour. Mental health concerns become mental illness when the symptoms are recurrent and they affect one’s ability to function. It involves significant changes in thinking, emotions and behaviour and distress and problems functioning in daily activities. Just like diabetes or cancer, it is a medical condition that can be treated.
Mental illness is often believed to be rare and to “happen to others” but it can affect anyone regardless of gender, age and ethnicity. Mental disorders are common: in a year, 19% of US adults experience some form of mental illness, 4,1% of them have a serious (define) mental illness.
There are many causes of mental illness. It can be genetic: certain genes may increase the risk of mental illness. It can be due to exposure to inflammatory conditions, stressful environments, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb. It can be caused by brain chemistry: when the neural network is faulty, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change which can lead to depression. Mental illness does not result from one event but from a combination of causes. Environmental conditions play a role in mental disorders, someone living a stressful life is more susceptible.
- Heredity: Many mental illnesses run in family, and are passed through genes. Although, it is not certain that children will get the same mental diseases as their parents, they are more likely to do so. Experts believe that hereditary mental illness comes from conditions that are linked in multiple genes. If these conditions are all present, the patient will probably develop the illness. The disorder occurs from an interaction between these genes and other elements or events, that can trigger the illness in a susceptible person.
- Biology: Some mental illnesses come from an imbalance of neurotransmitters (Brain chemicals) if these are out of balance, messages may not be transmitted clearly enough, leading to symptoms of mental illness. In addition, defects or injury to some parts of the brain are also causes of mental illness.
- Psychological trauma: Some illnesses can be triggered by trauma suffered as a child, whether it is physical or emotional, sexual abuse, a significant loss, or neglect.
- Environmental factors: Some elements of a person’s environment (death, divorce, changing jobs or schools, or substance abuse) can trigger a disorder in a person or put them at risk of developing a mental illness.
Symptoms vary depending on the issue, conditions and other factors. They affect emotions, thoughts and behaviour.
Some examples are:
Reduced ability to concentrate, excessive fears and worries, extreme mood changes, inability to cope with daily problems, feeling down, withdrawal from social activities, detachment from reality (delusions), suicidal thinking, confused thinking, hallucinations, delusions, substance use, change in personality or sex drive….
Symptoms can also be physical problems such as back and stomach pain and other unexplained pains.
Source: Pexels | Daniel Rache
Most of the symptoms can be managed with both medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy).
There are various kinds of stigma: structural stigma, which corresponds to discriminatory policies; Inter personal stigma, which intervenes in relations with others, it is characterized by specific behavior such as discrimination as a result of some individual’s psychiatric label; and self-stigma, which is internalized stigma, and can lead to feelings of shame.
Surprisingly, stigma doesn’t only happen because of misinformation, in fact, it exists in the healthcare community as well as in those who are related to someone with a mental illness. Proximity and knowledge seem to have little impact on the stigma that people carry. For example, according to a study made in 2010, nearly half of the group of teenagers reported stigmatization by family members, usually in the form of unwarranted assumptions, pity, distrust and gossip.
The most commonly stigmatized illnesses are schizophrenia, eating disorders, depression and dependence. They are often associated with the idea that they imply violent behaviors, that the individual is unreliable, and in the case of eating disorders, dependence and depression, that they are self inflicted and totally controllable.
Mental health is still a relatively new topic, therefore there still is a lot of uncertainty around the topic. Ignorance, unconscious biases, media portrayal, all feed stigmatizing behaviors and beliefs. Some of the consequences are a lack of moral support among peers, poor self esteem, poorer treatment outcomes, self isolation, being less likely to be employed…
Source: World Health Organization
To abolish stigma, sharing facts might not be enough although it is a start. Studies suggest working on empathy and awareness of one’s own stigma helps much more.
There exists various kinds of therapy, be it group therapy, working with a professional therapist, and even medication. Therapy can be very important to alleviate symptoms, help the patient understand what is going on better, as well as providing tools to cope with the illness. Therapy can also provide emotional support, which is crucial to getting better.
Therapy isn’t exclusive to those who suffer from chronic illnesses, it can be useful to anyone who needs help to work out something about themselves, events that happened in their lives, etc.
Source: Technology Networks
Online therapy can be extremely helpful, especially in times like these when it is not easy to reach out to others because of social distancing and of the quarantine measures still in force in many countries. Online therapy allows access to mental health-linked resources for the most remote areas, people with physical or economical limitations or people with complex schedules.
However, it is not necessarily a replacement for traditional therapy, as it sometimes cannot be enough to treat some cases. There are many options for online therapy on the internet, so it is easy to get lost in the number of possibilities.
To shed light on the best offers out there and help you find the therapy site best fit to your needs, Consumers Advocate, which we are partnering with for this article, has reviewed online therapy options.