On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness
Last year, both Royal Princes shed light on the stress they had suffered after the tragic loss of their mother Princess Diana. This was an unprecedented step away from the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach traditionally expected from establishment figures. Now Prince William has launched a new website which aims at improving mental health in the workplace. Perhaps this is a sign that we are moving away from a culture of ‘stress shame’ and towards a new culture willing to speak up and speak out about mental health? According to the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem in any given year. Yet only a quarter of these people receive ongoing treatment. Whilst there has been a positive shift in public, workplace and media attitudes towards mental health, there is still a lot of work to be done to make these illnesses openly accepted as any other. As a society, it seems we have a healthier understanding and acceptance of mental health issues in the public domain. But are we still struggling to openly acknowledge and accept these issues in ourselves?
As a long-time member of the mental health club I know that "speaking up and speaking out" isn’t as easy as it sounds. Particularly when the person in question is you. I have always been incredibly open and accepting of mental health problems in others. Yet, embracing my own mental health issues has always been much more difficult. For years I categorised my mental health issues as GADs (generalised anxiety disorder) or SADs (seasonal affective disorder) because the lack of specificity seemed less serious and secondary. I would have an annual dilemma about returning to my doctor as that was surely a sign that I’d failed to fix myself once again. But the biggest battle was the guilt: the shame around feeling sad when my life was so good. This stopped me asking for help on so many occasions because my depression just didn’t seem justified.
Social stigma refers to negative attitudes directed at a group of people by the population. Self-stigma occurs when people internalise these social prejudices and as a result, suffer numerous negative consequences. With hindsight I can see that self-stigma caused me more struggle than anything else. Even more than the depression itself because the self-stigma trapped me in a vicious circle of worry: I was depressed about being depressed. The shame around my SADs/depression/low-mood (call it what you will!) kept me shy and silent for many years and it became this ‘dark secret’ that I shared with very few people. Yet, keeping it hidden only fuelled these feelings because shame loves the shadow: it wants to stay hidden.
Coincidentally, learning to accept my mental health issues has alleviated certain symptoms and has made it much more manageable. I’ve stopped disassociating with my mental health problems and I’ve opened a dialogue. Not only with others but also with myself because conscious communication starts with the conversations that are happening within. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not standing on soapboxes, shouting about my stress levels, but I am seeing mental illness as exactly that: an illness. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a character flaw. And whilst there are many things in my life that I can’t control there are many things that I can, starting with self-stigma and self-sabotaging beliefs.
On Wednesday it’s World Mental Health Day and the focus of this year’s event is on young people and mental health in a changing world. Our world is indeed changing rapidly, both in the physical world and in the virtual online world. One survey revealed that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys are cyberbullied, even more worrying when we consider that 83% of young people said that bullying is having a negative impact on their self-esteem. As Prof Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick argues, “We cannot continue to dismiss bullying as a harmless, almost inevitable, part of growing up. We need to change this mindset and acknowledge this as a serious problem for both the individual and the country as a whole; the effects are long-lasting and significant.” Therefore, it’s vital that we shine a light on the issues young people are facing and open up conversations around what they need in order to grow up healthy, happy and resilient. These open discussions need to happen on many levels: politically, professionally, publicly and perhaps most importantly- personally. We all need to stand up to the stigma attached to mental illness so that the children of tomorrow can feel comfortable and confident accessing services and asking for help.
Starting with the stigma that comes from within.