Guest blog post by FHRD Member, Paths Clinic
Experiencing mental health issues is actually very common. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1 in 5 children and adolescents have a mental health condition, depression affects 264 million people worldwide, and 800,000 people die by suicide every year. Therefore, the chance of you knowing someone experiencing mental health issues, such as a friend, family member or colleague, is highly likely. Many local and international companies are now introducing measures in the workplace to provide employees with mental health support and guidance, which is an important step in reducing stigma.
So, what is stigma exactly? Stigma occurs when someone views someone else, or themselves, in a negative way because they have a personal trait or distinguishing characteristic that’s considered, or actually is, a disadvantage. In terms of mental illness, the fear and lack of understanding of mental health issues results in discrimination and prejudice, as well as shame and embarrassment. This can lead to discrimination which is quite direct, such as ridiculing, harming or making a negative comment about someone’s illness. It may also be indirect, wherein you avoid contact with someone experiencing mental health issues due to assumptions about the person, for instance that they may be violent, dangerous or unstable. Such stigma occurs in different contexts. In the workplace it may lead to unfair treatment, bullying, exclusion, unemployment and unequal rights.
There are things we can do as individuals to contribute to reducing stigma, both in the workplace and outside it. Here are a few ideas:
- Learn more about mental health
Much of the negativity around mental health is based on a lack of knowledge. Whilst some people assume that people with mental health issues are violent or dangerous, the reality is that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. Furthermore, people develop mental health issues for various reasons, including genetics, excessive stress, childhood trauma, violence, abuse and injustice. We may all experience a mental illness at some point in our lives or may need to support and care for someone experiencing mental illness.
Rather than using language which labels people with mental health issues, ensure that your language recognises that the illness doesn’t define the person. For instance, rather than saying ‘She’s schizophrenic’ you can say ‘She has schizophrenia’. Beware also of insensitive language which trivialises illnesses such as OCD, depression or bipolar disorder. I often hear people referring to someone who’s moody as bipolar, or someone who likes to clean as having OCD. For someone really suffering from such conditions, these comments are hurtful and minimise their struggle.
- Speak out against discrimination
If you become aware of any policies or actions which don’t support the mental health of employees, speak to Human Resources about your concerns. Likewise, if colleagues behave in ways that are disrespectful or inconsiderate towards others who experience mental health issues, speak to them about this. They may not be aware that their behaviour or language is harmful and, if they are aware and refuse to change, escalating your concerns may be necessary.
If someone has a physical illness, such as cancer or arthritis, we tend to be very sensitive and understanding. Why should physical illnesses be acceptable and shame-free whilst mental illnesses are seen as signs of weakness or shame-inducing? Examine your own feelings towards mental health and challenge these. Where do they originate from? Do you really think they’re valid and accurate nowadays with your current knowledge?
- Encourage open dialogue around mental health
Many people hide their mental health issues from family, friends and colleagues because they’re embarrassed, scared to be seen as weak, and fear the consequences of the truth emerging. If you suspect someone close to you is experiencing mental health issues, check in on them. Ask them how you can support them. If you’ve experienced mental health issues yourself, sharing your own experiences may make it easier for others to do the same and help them feel less alone. It’s through open dialogue that we reduce the shame around mental health.
- Normalise seeking treatment or support
Whether it’s you experiencing mental health issues or someone close to you, don’t let fear of being labelled stop you seeking treatment. Failure to seek support can not only worsen symptoms but lead to further complications and distress. Treatment can help you identify what’s wrong and help you manage your symptoms, allowing you to continue working, studying and living your life. You may seek the services of a psychotherapist or counsellor, or look out for support groups so as to enable you to meet other people going through similar experiences as yourself.
Whether or not you’ve been touched by mental illness, reducing the stigma around it is incredibly important so as to create a society which is more inclusive. The reality is that mental health issues have always existed and will continue to do so. Therefore, by reducing the shame and stigma attached to them, we can ensure the right help and support is provided to those who need it.
Psychotherapist Danjela Falzon works with clients on issues related to anxiety, depression, burnout, stress, relationships, sexuality, personality disorders, self-esteem and self-growth. She forms part of the team at paths Clinic. For more information, visit www.paths.care.