This month is mental health awareness month! In honor of that, I intend to make sure that my posts for the month have more of a mental health focus. Today, I want to talk about the stigma that is placed on mental health, and what we can do to fight it off.
So what is stigma?
Stigma is a mark of disgrace placed upon a particular quality, circumstance, or person. Stigma occurs when a dominant or powerful part of a community(or a very large percentage of the community) decides that some particular difference is morally corrupt, unhealthy or otherwise bad.
Racism is a form of stigma placed on non-white people, and ableism is the stigma placed on people living with disabilities.
I have several aspects of my identity that are stigmatized: my identity as somebody with a disability(I have FND) and my identity as somebody with a mental illness(I have experienced prolonged periods of anxiety and depression), and my bisexual identity are a few of my stigmatized identities.
Mental health, especially the idea of mental illness, is heavily stigmatized and is a subject that many people have difficulty talking about. So, we are going to face it head-on and try to dispel some of the prejudices and limiting beliefs that make mental illness so difficult to discuss.
I’m also hoping that in discussing this information, I can help you reduce your own negative feelings around the label(most people do have negative feelings or fears when mental health and mental illness get mentioned, you are not alone!) and potentially be able to help others in your life do the same. Breaking down the stigma around mental illness is going to take a lot of effort, but we can do it, one person and one step at a time!
Defining mental health
If you have good mental health, that means that you have achieved a healthy balance between your social, emotional, and psychological needs in life.
This healthy balance is difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consistently maintain.
Social health is everything related to how you connect and interact with everyone. Being socially healthy is having positive connections that you maintain with your loved ones, your family(who in some cases are loved ones, and in some cases aren’t), your friends, and being able to interact well with the rest of society.
Being emotionally healthy involves recognizing your emotions when you feel them, connecting with your emotions regularly, and finding healthy ways to express your emotions as you feel them.
To be psychologically healthy, your perception of the world must be close to reality, and your self-perception also needs to line up well with reality.
You also need to be able to process through your emotions, understand how and why you feel them, and be sure that your expression of those emotions helps you to get through your feelings and not be controlled by them, or stuck in any part of a cycle.
Your mental health and well-being are on a continuum, it’s not a binary thing. You aren’t either mentally healthy or mentally ill with nothing in between.
Instead, view mental health as a spectrum, with severe mental illness(unaware of and unable to interact with the real world) is on one end, and the other end is something like buddha’s state of mind in his most zen moment ever.
My point is that perfect mental health is an idealized goal, but people almost always fall short of perfection in this.
That means that there is always room for improvement! It also makes the point that good mental health is an ongoing process, not an item to check off on a list.
What is mental illness?
The definition given by the American Psychiatric Association is “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”
I was first diagnosed with a mental illness, clinical depression, at the age of 9.
In my case, after experiencing multiple deaths of people I cared about in a relatively short period of time(5 people in under 3 years), I got emotionally stuck in that feeling of loss, and had a very hard time finding joy in life, and so participated in fewer things, didn’t really get excited over things I used to enjoy, and found myself feeling sad a lot of the time.
Because this continued for several months and showed no signs of getting better on its own, my mother and I sought medical help and I was able to improve with treatment.
Mental illness really is any condition that society agrees is too far from the norm to be considered healthy. Psychiatrists and psychologists generally identify and treat mental illness according to the DSM – think about it as the encyclopedia of mental illnesses.
As our knowledge and understanding of psychology and human biology expand, some conditions are removed. Epilepsy, for example, was at one point classified as a mental illness.
We now recognize it as having a physical cause and it is now considered a neurological condition, not a psychological one.
Other conditions are adjusted(many psychological conditions now have an identifiable cause and process, usually some form of imbalance in brain chemistry), and others are added(‘hoarding’ is now a recognized disorder).
There are also occasions where the definition of ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ is expanded, such as the removal of homosexuality and transgender identity from the DSM.
The DSM is referenced and used by psychiatrists and psychologists the world over and is considered the authority on mental illness. So if something is listed in the DSM, it is considered a mental illness at the time of publication.
The condition I have, Functional Neurological Disorder(FND), was considered a psychological disorder when I was diagnosed in 2003.
The name FND did not exist, and instead, it was referred to as Conversion Disorder.
It is now recognized as a neurological condition, but the reality is that it is right in the middle – it is both a neurological and a psychological condition, but doesn’t follow all the expectations in either category.
Stigma keeps people from getting help
The number of people who seek medical help for their mental illness is much smaller than the number of people who experience mental illness.
While there are some people who get through life without ever experiencing mental illness in some form, most of us are not so lucky.
There is very little anybody can do to control their tendency toward having mental health concerns, which is why being vigilant and seeking help when needed is so vital.
People can absorb negative attitudes and beliefs around an aspect of their own identity. In many cases the person then applies those beliefs to him or herself, growing a sense of self-hatred and damaging their self-esteem.
Internalized stigma is in many ways more difficult to manage, and tends to push people towards self-destructive behaviors.
For anyone who has some form of mental illness, it’s very important to recognize the stigma placed on mental illness, and then to check yourself and see if you have internalized some of those negative thoughts and feelings.
If you do, working on softening those emotions and regaining your own mental/emotional balance may be one of the best things you can do for yourself. I
f you are able to love yourself, flaws and all, you are much more likely to find your sense of purpose in life, and be better able to care for yourself in other ways!
Managing your mental health
So what does managing your mental health mean and what do you need to do?
Really, it is best explained as self-knowledge and self-acceptance. The management part is all about your thoughts and how they affect your actions.
The more aware you are of your own personality quirks, and your own mental habits, the better you can be at recognizing negative thought patterns, and cutting them off before they grow into something that requires outside intervention(like medication).
When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, my mother, psychiatrist and I agreed that I was going to take antidepressants and talk to a therapist.
The antidepressant gave me the boost I needed to break out of the brain chemistry cycle, and talking to the therapist helped me dig into why it happened and helped me find ways to not have my mind get stuck in that dark place again.
Before I entered high school, I was medication-free and in good emotional shape. I credit that to my mother for noticing, and the doctors for providing me with the right support.
The more you do to keep your mental health balanced, the more likely you are to succeed at maintaining a balance and even more importantly, for getting that balance back if something disrupts it.
The stronger your foundation of mental and emotional health, the less likely you are to lose your mental health balance and fall into the pit of mental illness.
How do you build that foundation?
Just like most things – you do it through creating good habits for yourself, and by practicing those habits!
The more you practice, the better you are at it!
The more practice you have with building and maintaining that foundation, the easier it is to get back on it if you do fall off!
Conclusion: we can help stop mental health stigma
The first step to solving any problem is to recognize that there is a problem.
Through learning about mental health, you have taken the first step towards fighting any stigma you have internalized.
Stay aware of your emotions and your state of mind.
Focus on the positive aspects of your life, and stay connected with the people you love.
In the meantime, if you hear other people showing their prejudices and negative beliefs about mental health conditions, do what you can to educate them about mental health, and encourage them to think about their assumptions and expectations of people with mental illness.
Hopefully, they will be more aware of mental health needs and concerns and be open to getting help if they need it.