Stigma and Society's Perception of Mental Illness
The idea that mental health costs us money as a society is factual, but this is not a useful strategy in reducing stigma. That said, there are a number of strategies used in the effort of reducing mental health stigma that do work. Within the advocacy community itself, I feel many, if not most, are spot on or on the right track. But doing a high-level look at some of the strategies used, it's time to rethink how we're going to slow the impact of mental health stigma.
We miss the signs of mental struggle others are going through because mental health stigma presents warped ideas of what mental illness and the people with it look like. If we're only looking for those that fit a certain mold when trying to pick out someone with mental illness, chances are we're going to miss those who are in a mental struggle.
Fiction is a great way to explore ourselves, the world around us, and our imaginations, but it also has the potential to spread mental illness myths. Not surprisingly, that includes myths about the people who live with mental illness. Unfortunately, the myths are more often than not harmful to people with mental illness in the real world.
Using ignorance as an excuse doesn't mean what someone said or did wasn't stigmatizing toward mental health or, more specifically, mental illness. Why? Because stigma isn't about intent. Stigma is the negative ideas and misconceptions of mental illness, whether intended or not. Ignorance only determines whether you're mistakenly stigmatizing mental health or doing it on purpose. But stigma is stigma, whether you know any better or not.
I tell my mental illness story with tattoos because they both tell stories and help us tell our stories. Those stories can be about anything, and countless people have gotten their skin permanently marked with representations of their journeys with mental illness, myself included. My tattoos give me the opportunity to share my mental illness story and talk about mental health in general. Most conversations are positive, but as with most things mental illness-related, stigma is never too far off.
I'm guilty of discounting simple remedies for mental illness. I would always see something like changing a sleep pattern as simple in comparison to the complex nature of mental illness. I couldn't understand how one could truly make a difference on the other and saw people suggesting that it could as a gross misunderstanding of mental illness and ultimately a perpetuation of stigma. But sometimes the simple solutions are the ones we need to alleviate the symptoms and improve mental wellbeing, which is what I learned recently when I realized how much sleep affects my mental health.
Working with social anxiety isn't a cure for social anxiety disorder, but working with the disorder has taught me a few things. Other people may look at social anxiety disorder and think that people just need to get over their irrational fears or worries and become productive members of society, especially when it comes to working. I was one of those people who wondered how I would ever be able to work considering the paralyzing anxiety I felt from having to deal with the public, using the phone, and other work-related things. I felt (and sometimes still do feel) the constant pressure of that stigma saying suck it up and go to work. So I did, and here's what I learned from working with social anxiety.
Celebrities' mental health stories help us see that anyone can have mental illness: this statement is not something that I can stress enough. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how much happiness there is in your life, or if you have a “reason” for being sick — sometimes you’re just sick, and that’s the long and the short of it. Celebrities' mental health stories go a long way toward showing that we're all susceptible to mental illness.
The effect of exercise on mental health and mental illness isn't what most people think. One of the go-to remedies for those who don’t understand mental illness is to suggest those who have a mental illness exercise as if it’s a cure. It’s often used in the argument that pharmaceuticals are bad by saying regular exercise is the only real cure. While being active can have a positive effect on some people, it’s still not a cure for mental illnesses. Because of that, the suggestion of exercise to fix them is very much a notion of stigma because of its oversimplification and misunderstanding of mental illness.