Stigma in mental health – it’s everywhere!

stigma

Apart from the obvious suffering endured by people with depression and anxiety, many people still have misconceptions about mental health problems[1]. The most common fallacies are that there is no treatment for mental health problems; mental health problems are caused by personal weaknesses; that people with mental disorders are incapable of making decisions for themselves or running their own lives; there is something wrong with people suffering from it; or that people with depression can’t be trusted to work alongside others. Misconceptions like these yield a stigma regarding mental illness which attaches to those suffering from it.

Stigma is a significant issue in mental health: it lowers people’s self-esteem, makes symptoms more severe and limits help-seeking behaviours.[2] Depression may also be accompanied by discrimination.[3] 

According to sufferers, the stigma can often feel worse than the illness itself. Stigma presents in many guises. Ignorance or misinformation, prejudice, and outright discrimination are its main components[4]. While it generally comes from other people, even family and friends, stigma can also permeate someone suffering from the illness in a mistaken belief that they should be able to snap out of their depression.  Unfortunately, there is no switch to turn it off and on. It runs with or without a person’s co-operation.

Beyond Blue report that the two most effective approaches to reducing stigma are education and contact (including personal contact with people with depression and anxiety)[5].

In my view, the stigma will always exist for as long as you have ignorant, prejudiced, and poorly behaved people in the world. That is not ever likely to change. Society is unforgiving. In 2020, there is still a stigma attached to the illness and there should not be.

Workplaces are not exempt from societal tendencies towards mental health stigma. A recent Australian study revealed that about one in three people had reservations about working with someone experiencing depression or anxiety; preferred that their supervisor or manager did not have these illnesses; and did not think a co-worker with depression or anxiety would be capable of performing their job adequately[6].

The same study also reported that most employees would not disclose their experience of a mental health condition within their workplace. The study cited a reluctance by employees to disclose their experience of depression to employers due to a lack of support for mental health by line managers, the CEO, or their industry.[7]

According to mental health advocate Ruby Wax,[8] ‘If you become mentally ill, don’t – whatever you do – tell your boss.’[9]

She explains it this way:

When people say, ‘Should you tell them at work?’, I say: ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems, but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Mental illness is like the situation used to be with gay rights. Like being in the closet, but mental illness is now the taboo instead.

Ruby Wax featured in Morgan, E. (2015). Should you tell your boss about mental health illness? Absolutely. The Guardian, 7 July 2015.

Ruby is right.

Globally, while there is more awareness, more advertising, and a growing amount of assistance to people suffering from mental illness, societal attitudes and acceptance have not caught up. As a society, we have changed our opinions about a whole range of subjects previously considered taboo, like gay marriage.

While we may have a long way to go in these areas as well, at least we have shifted, made a decisive move toward change. With depression, I am uncertain that I will see the same shift in my lifetime, but I remain hopeful that it will come. Acceptance, compassion, tolerance, and respect will alleviate a significant amount of needless suffering. The sooner it happens, the better.

There are no shortages of examples of high-profile people prepared to disclose their mental health issues. Sporting stars, politicians, movie stars and TV personalities have all confessed publicly to being vulnerable and exposed to the effects of depression and anxiety. Yet, people still don’t seem to understand it, or at least be willing to accept it. It remains taboo.

If society was accepting of mental illness—I mean genuinely accepting—we would have more of our business and political leaders leading the way in this area. It’s about time they stood up and did exactly that.


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Notes

[1] WHO (2005) Mental Health Policies and Programmes in the Workplace, WHO Press, Geneva.

[2] Sastre, R.M., et al. (2019). Instruments to assess mental health-related stigma among health professionals and students in health sciences: a systematic psychometric review. Journal of Advanced Nursing; 75: 9, 1838-1853.

[3] National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2009). Depression in Adults: Recognition and Management. NICE. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2009) Depression in Adults with a Chronic Physical Health Problem: Recognition and Management. NICE. 

[4] Beyond Blue Ltd, Information Paper – Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety, August 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] TNS Social Research (2014). State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia. Beyondblue and TNS Social Research.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ruby Wax is an author and comedian. In 2015, she was awarded an OBE for her services to mental health.

[9] Morgan, E. (2015). Should you tell your boss about mental health illness? Absolutely. The Guardian, 7 July 2015.

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