Out of sight, out of mind.
For the longest time, anything to do with mental health, illness and stigma remained unacknowledged. Since they pertain to the inner workings, they are essentially out of sight and therefore, out of mind. When it started gaining traction, however, the taboos surrounding them made it difficult to initiate healthy discussions.
However, times are changing. It’s necessary to keep up with them and maintain a flexible mindset. To this end, read on to find out about these concepts, the taboos associated and how to combat them!
What is mental health?
Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.World Health Organization (WHO)
What is mental illness?
Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.American Psychiatric Association
What is stigma?
Social stigma is the disapproval of, or discrimination against, a person based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society. Social stigmas are commonly related to culture, gender, race, intelligence and health.Wikipedia
Stereotypes or negative views attributed to a person or groups of people when their characteristics or behaviors are viewed as different from or inferior to societal norms.Dudley JR. Confronting stigma within the services system. Social Work. 2000;45:449–455.
“Log kya kahenge?” : What will people say?
An excited teenager returned from a store empty handed. The shirt he chose was pink and his dad did not want their neighbours thinking his son was gay.
An older couple tamp down on their desire to physically show affection in a public setting, lest their relatives remark on their unseemly conduct.
A young girl’s horrifying story of sexual abuse by a family member is kept under the wraps by her parents, because what will people say? The mental illness that followed, the therapy and support she needed were spoken about in whispers and in time, forgotten.
Stigma against Mental Health and Illness
Why does it occur?
It is human tendency to resist change. Irrespective of the impact that change has on us, the first reaction is always to question it. Then, it comes as no surprise when we refuse to accept that which we consider different.
What does it look like?
- Complete denial; “She’s not ill, she’s just lazy.”
- Dismissing conditions and experiences; “He’s just making a big deal of things.”
- Attaching labels; “He has schizophrenia and he’s totally crazy and dangerous!”
- Unequal work opportunities; “She’s not normal, so there’s no way I’d hire her,” and so on.
- Presumptions; “I can’t tell him about what happened, because he’ll just freak out.”
Simply put, the knowledge that an individual is suffering from a mental illness sometimes causes people to look at them in a different light and treat them differently.
Rose-coloured lenses – Positive or Problematic?
People view the world through rose-coloured lenses, but there are times when these come off. During such times, what doesn’t match their idea of perfection is met with uncertainty, scorn and even outright disapproval. We are all so conditioned to maintain the facades of normalcy that the slightest deviance causes an uproar!
Perhaps the most destructive form of stigma is that against mental health and conversely, mental illness. At the grassroots level, it starts at home. Physical illnesses with tangible evidence are given all the care in the world. However, the invisible wounds that fester slowly are considered non-existent.
A while back, I had a conversation with a close relative. I asked them if we could have a conversation about therapy. Their reaction was to look at me very seriously and tell me to keep quiet. When I didn’t give in, they burst into tears and choked out the Kannada equivalent of, “You shouldn’t say things like that.”
For a moment there, I was dumbfounded. Was this the same person who encouraged me to pursue psychology, in a world full of Sharma ji ka betas who were engineers and doctors?
I fought tooth and nail to be studying and working in this field. I was proud to not-so-secretly nurse the fact that my family acknowledged my interests. However, even after years of providing secondhand exposure to what mental health is all about, I had undeniable proof that the stigma associated with mental health is very real and very present.
The Blame Game
A skinned knee is treated with an antiseptic, whereas depression, anxiety, stress and so on are given the boot. Mental health care is approached with derision, apprehension, judgement and fear, more so than mental illness itself. People are dying, bit by bit and all at once, but we still talk about them in hushed whispers behind closed doors.
It’s hard to pinpoint if this is a generational fault or an individual one. Tamping down on emotions, especially suffering, is dangerously normalised.
It’s never too late to make changes. What can we do?
There are a number of ways to combat this and while they might not work for everybody, it is definitely a step forward in the right direction.
- Acceptance – The easiest of all is to take yourself/someone seriously, instead of a quick dismissal.
- Being open – Encourage and engage in healthy practices. To do this, normalize talk about experiences.
- Integration – Promote suitable measures to increase inclusivity, whether it is in a personal or a professional setting.
- Educate – Read articles, watch movies and documentaries and speak to experts about mental health. Teach others who may be unaware as well!
- Language – Be mindful about what you say and how you say it.
- Empathy – Offer a listening ear and put yourself in their shoes. Perhaps you’ll understand the differences and how to go about bridging the gaps!