Stigmas are social constructs. We usually stigmatize what we fear and don’t understand; we stigmatize in order to devalue. To this day, no phenomena has been as strongly affected by stigma as mental health. For years, mental health disorders were seen as a divine punishment, and as something to ignore or ridicule. In recent years, we have been experiencing a positive shift in the approach toward mental health in society. But while we have come a long way, stigma is still present and people with mental illnesses are still discriminated against. In this post, we will explore 3 reasons mental health scares us so much and share three things we should do to get rid of the stigma once and for all.
How did we get here?
The inconvenient truth is that we stigmatize what we fear, and fear what we don’t understand. And truthfully, mental illnesses are hard to comprehend. When we talk about mental illness, we talk about a wide array of conditions, spanning different age groups (from separation anxiety in children to dementia in the elderly), moods (from mania to depression), and behaviors. It is a huge field of study, and we don’t even know how much we don’t yet know.
What we do know is that people feel comfortable with what they find familiar. People like to anticipate what is about to come. Some mental health disorders manifest themselves as unexpected behavior. Schizophrenia, PTSD, and ADHD, for example, make people act in abrupt and unpredictable ways, which might startle a person who’s unaware of the condition at hand. Without knowledge of what causes this behavior, all that’s left is fear.
Another aspect unique to mental health disorders is that they’re mental. As in, they happen in the mind. Without physical evidence of an injury, it is hard for us to grasp that something might be wrong with a person. More than that, there’s no one spot to point at and say “that’s where it hurts!” No one will tell a person with a dislocated shoulder or a torn ACL to “walk it off” or “stop whining and try harder,” yet people do it all the time to the mentally ill. With the lack of physical “proof,” it is easy to ignore people with mental health conditions and label them as “lazy” or “weird.”
The combination of not being able to see the condition, our general discomfort with loss of control, and the lack of understanding of the issue, are the heart of the stigma around mental health. It is important to note that this stigma causes people to hide their conditions. Aside from the devastating personal outcomes of ignoring someone’s suffering, hiding mental conditions makes it difficult to know just how widespread each condition is. If fewer people report having a condition, this can affect the attention drawn to the subject, which affects research budgets, which leads to lack of understanding of the subject, which leads to stigma, which leads to people hiding their conditions. Mental health is a much more prominent phenomenon than anyone ever thought. It is important that we study it, understand it, and consequently, stop fearing it.
What can we do about it?
Changing a social construct is hard; it takes dedication and time. While we won’t end stigma right away, here are three separate yet interdependent processes we should start as soon as possible:
Education and communication are the cure for stigma. We are not suggesting that preschoolers should be quizzed on the functions of the amygdala or that Paul Ekman should be a household name, but we should certainly teach kids about the basic elements of psychology in schools: what are the core emotions? How can you tell the difference between feeling angry and anxious? What are some ways to deal with frustration?
Ambiguity and ignorance are major contributors to stigma. Therefore, a key factor in trying to battle stigma has to do with clearing the fog of misunderstanding surrounding it. By exposing children to elementary concepts of psychology at a relatively early stage, we teach them language they can use to better understand, and consequently better communicate what they experience. What often happens today is that we (sometimes unintentionally) ignore the signs of mental illness until they become too big to put off. When children are able to articulate their distress as it crops up, we are better able to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time.
Create a supportive environment:
Educating children about mental health has another incredibly important advantage. By speaking to children about psychology, we normalize the conversation about mental health. And by normalizing the conversation among children, we raise a generation of future adults who will see mental illnesses for what they are – health issues that should be treated just like any other condition, no different than a broken arm or a sprained ankle.
Luckily, in the age of social media, this shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish. There really aren’t too many good things to say about the connection between social media and mental health. But one potential benefit of social media for mental health is the normalization of mental illnesses. Social media has eliminated all hints of privacy. While that’s terrifying for plenty of reasons, it holds an opportunity: it allows us to see how common mental health disorders truly are. The more people share their mental health struggles, the less stigmatized they become.
Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Prince Harry, Kid Cudi, Billie Eilish, The Rock, and many others have already spoken about their personal struggles with various mental health disorders. As a society, it is important that we support those who need it and encourage people of all ages, backgrounds, and genders to share. Remember, the fact that people can’t see mental illness, doesn’t meant it should be hidden.
We want to create an environment where people want to seek treatment for their conditions and are able to access the treatment they need. In other words, enabling care consists of two parts: “the will” and “the way.”
When a person repeatedly wakes up with back pain and struggles to get out of bed, they call in sick and are encouraged to see an orthopedist. The orthopedist assesses the situation, builds a treatment plan that sometimes includes pills, and schedules follow-up meetings. No one murmurs, whispers, or thinks differently of the person for visiting the orthopedist. Now let’s switch back pain for an anxiety disorder and orthopedist for psychiatrist. What’s the difference? Why should there be a difference between taking a sick day for a mental health reason and taking a sick day to treat back pain or the common flu?
As a society, we should encourage people to willingly seek professional help and explore their conditions. We want to assure individuals that it is the right thing for them and their surroundings, and that it will not backfire on them socially. But that is not enough, and as we help with “the will” we should also help with “the way.”
Did you know that only 9% of American physicians practice in rural areas, even though about 20% of the population resides there? And that the numbers are even more alarming when talking about specialists? Did you know that 34% fewer psychiatrists accept commercial insurance than non-mental health physicians? These are systematic barriers that should be fixed. Actually, these are some of the exact barriers that Antidote Health has set out to fix. We believe that affordable and reliable insurance as well as telehealth services that are accessible to anyone regardless of location, medical condition, or income level, are the solution to a lot of the problems in the current healthcare system.
Improving access to mental health care will allow more people to experience its benefits firsthand. This will inevitably help us overcome the stigma surrounding mental health. And while none of this is going to happen tomorrow morning, these are steps we should take without hesitation. The quicker we do, the quicker we can get rid of the stigma on our way to a healthier society.