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Surviving Mental Health Stigma

My name is Rachel Miles, and I am very excited to be joining HealthyPlace to write on Surviving Mental Health Stigma. I was first diagnosed with depression and an eating disorder when I was 16 years old. This resulted in my first hospitalization as well as my first experiences with therapy, medication, and confronting mental health stigma. At the time, I had no idea what a significant part of my life these things would become.
Stigma from within the mental health community is the last place I expected to come across stigma for mental illnesses. Last Wednesday, I went to a mental health event that was about mental illness in general, as opposed to focused on one kind or another. I was at the mental health fair, called MindFest, with the Canadian BFRB Support Network (CBSN), Canada’s only non-profit geared towards raising awareness and providing resources for people with body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Since BFRBs are a lesser-known group of disorders, I expected questions, but I didn’t expect stigma from within the mental health community -- the people in attendance.
Awareness weeks for mental health are critical. The sheer mention of an awareness week of any sort may already have you groaning. I know I’ve heard and seen comments from people complaining about how there’s an awareness week for everything. That could be true, but they’re a vital part of the dissemination of information and breaking down stigmas associated with whatever cause they’re for. For causes such as mental illness awareness, awareness weeks are an especially poignant way to demystify what mental illnesses are and are not.
We can be broken down by mental health stigma. Mental health stigma surrounds us everywhere, whether we’re aware of it or not — in movies, television shows, news, literature, and the list goes on. Despite each source generally rehashing the same stigma-fuelled notions and images (or perhaps because of it), the fact that there’s so much stigma can be really draining and we ought to take a moment to practice self-care before mental health stigma breaks us down.
We need to take care of ourselves when facing mental health stigma. A little while ago, I was accused of pandering to mental health stigmatizers because in the blog in question I wasn't going for a throwdown against them. There is a reason for that, which is, even though I share tips how to fight stigma and approach stigmatizers, my main concern lies with the mental health community and the damage that can be done to the people in it when they see stigma all around them. We need to take care of ourselves.
Although I understand the huge amount of frustration that comes from responding to mental health stigma, I also feel that there are two ways to handle irritation. One way is getting mad, worked up, and starting to sling names, threats, and sarcasm around like there’s no tomorrow. The other is to approach these stigmatizers with a level head and facts, and knowing when to disengage. In the world of the Internet, it’s pretty easy to go about the former, but in this blog, I’m going to explain why I think the latter is a much more effective way to respond to mental health stigma.
Clickbait can increase mental health stigma. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, where everyone is vying for even a moment of attention, clickbait has become the way to get people to come to your page, even for sensitive matters such as people’s personal stories of mental illness. Unfortunately, sensationalism takes over and stories get warped to where they sometimes don't even reflect reality. In stories of mental illness, sensationalistic clickbait contributes heavily to stigma.
The terms "stigma" and "discrimination" are both used in the world of mental health. There have been debates surfacing about how to talk about people’s negative perceptions and behaviors towards both mental illness and those with mental illness. There are those who say we should stop calling stigma by that term and refer to it as discrimination alone, but, while the two terms are often linked, they are not quite the same thing and having stigma and discrimination separately is beneficial.
Mental illness stigma in school is a reality. Depending on where you live, school may already be back in session after the summer break or you could be waiting for that first day back to school in early September. Whatever the case, back-to-school can be a tough time for kids with mental illness whether it’s personal challenges of getting through the day or the challenge of dealing with peers. Even if your child really enjoys academics, back-to-school might cause distress. I know it did for me, so I want to offer a few tips for dealing with mental illness stigma in school since that’s what I was often most worried about.
Some people aren’t sure where to start when they want to talk about mental health or illness with a loved one. Knowing how to talk about mental illness is important, but broaching the subject can be difficult for all parties involved. Whether you’re on the mental illness or mental wellness side of the equation, stress over the talk can lead to not having the conversation at all or going about it all the wrong way. Is there a good way to talk about mental health?
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