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The big bad word: Stigma & it's harmful effect on mental health

Credit: kpdmedia -

How many of us have been told to remain secretive when talking about our mental health? How many of us have been told “it’s just in our head”? Or that we were being “ungrateful” for all that we have? Regardless of where you live, chances are you’ve either been handed one of these statements directly or know of someone who has. Such statements are rooted in harmful ways of thinking that only push us farther away from a world where therapy and mental health are normalized or maybe even celebrated.

While there has been a shift in the way people think and talk about mental health and therapy recently, there continues to be a certain stigma attached to these conversations. People with mental health issues continue to struggle to not only share their concerns with others but to get the help they need and deserve. For us to de-stigmatize therapy and mental health, we must first understand what stigma is. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace, viewing something, someone, or someplace in a negative way. Stigma often stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding. Gaps in one’s knowledge and understanding allow for more room for misinterpretations and misunderstandings that are often exacerbated by systemic, social, and cultural factors.

Stigma exists at every level of the ecological system as identified by researchers:

Self-stigma includes internalized thoughts and feelings about one’s issues and/or illness.

Public stigma includes the discriminatory and negative attitudes and behaviors people have about mental illness. For instance, employers, doctors, or landlords may not provide these individuals with appropriate care, services, or opportunities.

Lastly, institutional stigma includes larger organizations and entities such as governments that either intentionally or unintentionally create and implement laws and rules that discriminate against those with mental illnesses.

Most counseling and psychological theories are rooted in western belief systems and cannot be used when treating individuals in other parts of the world. To address the stigma from the root and change the way people approach mental health services around the world, we must develop preventative and interventive solutions tailored to the population’s specific historical and cultural backgrounds. Speaking to them in their language and benefiting from a sense of familiarity to achieve a shared goal of de-stigmatizing therapy and mental health for everyone.

The harm that stigma around mental health can cause is bigger and broader than one may realize at first. Stigma can exist in the form of subtle comments, actions, or lack thereof. It can also exist in the form of institutional discrimination or bullying. In some cultures, seeking mental health support is attributed to weakness. It is often met with judgment and comments that can be rude and degrading. Seeking professional help for mental health issues is often not met with the same acceptance that seeking physical health issues is. When someone is experiencing physical pain or discomfort, going to a doctor is often the first solution that is thought of and/or suggested. While the human brain is one of the biggest and most important organs of the human body, the way we care for it is unfortunately not always the same as other body parts.

The way forward in my opinion is to begin including mental health in school curriculums, to begin changing the way we think and talk about therapy, to change the narrative in the media, and in books, and to come from a place of knowledge, understanding, and kindness. It is essential for us to also begin incorporating cultural sensitivity and trauma training programs in the corporate world, normalizing the need for self-care and mental well-being. While some of these changes are large-scale changes that may take longer to be implemented, we can start small. We can start by having some of these conversations at dinner tables or in our circles, by advocating for our loved ones and for ourselves, and by taking steps toward a world where therapy is celebrated and talking about mental health is normalized.

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