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Stigma Is The Problem, Not Mental Illness

Imagine a world where, upon noticing we're not feeling physically or mentally okay, we express how we’re feeling, and then reach out for the appropriate help. Then once we have received the right treatment, we recover and then get back to life.

Seems like that world does exist in some ways, but only for those who feel physically unwell. If it’s a mental health issue, many of us are still taking the option of suffering in silence, and not getting the appropriate treatment.

Mental health issues are a common problem for many of us. According to WHO, an estimated 300 million people are affected by depression around the world. The number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50%, from 416 million to 615 million between 1990 and 2013. Common mental disorders are increasing worldwide.

In the last few weeks we have seen a few more public conversations surrounding the normality of experiencing mental health issues. We’ve had Prince Harry and Lady Gaga talking about their symptoms and we can add their candid chat to a long list of celebrities who have admitted to experiencing mental illness.

These public chats raise awareness about mental health issues worldwide, and lead to further conversations about how it’s normal to not feel okay at times. A sigh of a relief and a collective "WORD. PRINCE HARRY. WORD." on social media demonstrates how many people identify with Prince Harry’s experience.

That’s because many of us have felt exactly the same at times.

I love it when athletes, politicians, musicians, actors, comedians (and royalty of course) who have suffered from mental health issues share their experiences. Not only because we get to see another side to them, but it helps us mere mortals connect with the light and dark that all of us feel at some point in our lives. Us psychologists already know that because we get to hear people’s stories every day. But many people don’t get to hear about the full, honest story from the close people around them because they keep it to themselves.

Celebrities opening up about their experiences have a powerful effect on us. Sharing their own stories reduces the stigma associated with mental health issues. It makes us feel less isolated and alone. It stops us from going inward instead of outward.

Stigma is a huge problem for people experiencing mental illness. Because of stigma those people who experience mental health issues have a lot more to deal with than just the mental health issue itself.

Looking at the variety of definitions of stigma you see the common negative terms used; shame, public disapproval, mark on ones reputation and even something that takes away from ones character.

Sounds like anything that’s stigmatised is a problem to society.

But if you think harder about it, it’s not mental health issues that are the problem. It’s stigma that is in itself fear inducing, negative, hurtful, prejudicial and painful.

It’s stigma that is a problem to society, not mental health issues.

Many of us have experienced anxiety, depression, stress, grief, or a myriad of other issues that have affected our mental health. Even if we purport to not experiencing it, it’s likely that we will at some stage of our life. Perhaps those that stigmatise mental health conditions are those that are experiencing them themselves. There’s nothing like projection to get you unconsciously feeling uneasy about something in others that you, yourself may experience. If that’s the case, go easy on yourself, it's okay to not feel okay.

Sometimes mental health conditions are around briefly, for others it might be for months or years. Sometimes there is a reason behind it, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes we can get on top of it quickly, other times we struggle a bit longer.

No one wants to develop heart disease, diabetes, arthritis or cancer. No one wants mental health issues either. But they are going to be sticking around even longer and continuing to increase, if society doesn’t embrace people who are experiencing it.

If you are fighting the battle of having mental health issues, then you are also fighting alongside millions of other people worldwide. You are certainly not alone in your fight.

As Prince Harry was recently quoted: “...the experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a bit club”.

Indeed, part of the biggest club you’ll ever be in.

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