Stigma in Communities
Stigma around mental health can come from many places, including from within our communities and wider society, and even from ourselves. People face many unseen challenges and struggles in their daily lives, and it can be difficult to appreciate how tough it is for some people whose families or friends wouldn’t support them if they were open about their mental health needs. It’s important not to judge or assume people’s experiences based on face value as there is likely much more than you know going on beneath the surface.
There are some stigmas which we may not even recognise because they are such a part of the fabric of society. One example of this societal stigma is the British concept of having a ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘taking things on the chin’ which discourages people from speaking out about issues and basically to deal with it on your own. This can make people feel like they have to stay quiet about their issues and bottle them up which can lead to further problems down the line. Communication and seeking help are so important and are a mark of strength, not weakness.
Many cultures also have this mentality against seeking help or speaking out about mental illness. A member of Creative Support staff told us about living in the Caribbean when they worked as a member of the police; they saw horrible things but there was never any counselling. “It was seen as weak to get help for your mental health. Counselling in Britain was very focused on what had happened but there wasn’t any attempt to understand that the biggest challenge for me was to actually get help. I think that more informed, culturally relevant counselling would have really helped me.”
Stigma can also come from old laws which have since been changed. Up until the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to die by suicide and people who attempted it could face prison. The stigma surrounding suicide was so huge that the ripples of negativity remain today. In recent years there have been some great strides in suicide prevention campaigns and organisations such as Samaritans, who offer helpful, non-judgmental advice and help to anyone with suicidal thoughts. There has also been a movement to stop using the term ‘commit’ suicide, because this is the criminal language (e.g. you say ‘commit’ murder). Taking their own life, or completing suicide are terms without stigma.
In the majority of major religions there is also much discussion around mental health and suicide. For many religions, suicide is considered a sin and there is a stigma around it that prevents people from talking about it or seeking help. This can be really hard and create a lot of internal turmoil for people, so it’s important to not judge but show that there are resources and support out there in many forms if people would ever like to seek it.
Some religious sects also associate mental illness with possession and will seek to treat people with exorcism or prayer. The equation of mental illness and demons or the devil can strongly discourage people from being open with their friends and family in their community out of fear that they will be viewed as evil and be forced to take part in healing exercises which can often do more harm than good.
Stigma on a close, personal level is also often overlooked. If your parents or friends have fears or negative views of mental illness, it can have a lasting effect and make you question your own thoughts on mental illness. It can also create a feeling of being closed in, when people around you are telling you negative things about mental health, and that there is no-one who can help or support you. People can worry that if they do reach out or access support, that it could get back to their family and friends and cause them trouble or pain. This is a very real and valid fear, and it can take time for people to seek help because of it, or put them off completely.
Part of this is the stigma that we place on ourselves. This can come from societal pressure and also the belief that we are the only person that feels this way so nobody else will understand what we’re going through. Social media can also fuel these thoughts and make you think that everyone else is perfect and doesn’t have these troubles. We promise that what people display on social media, or even in person, doesn’t always represent them fully. Everyone is going through something in their own way, and while not everyone has mental health needs, supporting everyone’s mental wellbeing and speaking about it when we’re not feeling 100% will go a long way to show that you are not alone and that it’s okay to not be okay.
Stigma around mental illness is huge, and though there are incredible organisations out there fighting the good fight and sharing information and support, there is still much more to do in order to create a more accessible and understanding society. The most important thing is not to judge people for their journey or question how much time it took to seek help. Supporting everyone, and doing what you can to share accurate information and learn more about mental health will go a long way to change people’s minds and attitudes in a positive, empowering way.