Stigma. We’ve all heard of it, we all know it’s there, we all know it is one of the biggest battles facing mental illness sufferers. But where does this stigma come from? Who is to blame, and what can we do to fight it?
A while ago I was lying in my bed, thinking about everything, as anxious people tend to do. And I started to wonder why everyone I knew affected by mental illness only came into my life in the last few years. It made me wonder: did these people spontaneously come into existence after my mum got sick? Probably not.
But if they always existed, what stopped me from meeting them? What stopped me from knowing they struggled with mental illness, from knowing that their loved one was ill?
I knew of people who had struggled with cancer, so why not mental illness? Stigma. Stigma stopped people from sharing their circumstances. Sufferers and their loved ones feared others’ reactions, and feared their own reality.
But, scary as mental illness is, it is no scarier than any other disease. So what is the root of this fear?
The Hidden Enemy: Ignorance
Ignorance. Ignorance is mental illness’ biggest enemy. It ensnares the general population, the sufferers, and those who care for sufferers and love them.
What is it?
To start, we need to consider what ignorance is, and what causes it. The trusty Oxford dictionary defines ignorant as “uninformed about or unaware of [something]”. My eye was then drawn to the next word on the page: ignore, which is defined as “[to] disregard intentionally; [to] fail to consider something significant”.
Ignorance is a lack of understanding, leading to a lack of action. Ignoring also leads to a lack of action. So as you go back to your daily lives this morning, remember this: if we don’t seek understanding, nothing will change; if we don’t act on understanding, nothing will change.
Birth of Stigma
Ignorance ensnares the general population through stigma. Stigma is born from ignorance, from centuries of no communication, from decades of miscommunication. But I believe we of this generation, we have the power and the opportunity to break free from this.
Stigma isolates people. Isolation aggravates mental illness conditions and delays treatment. You may not act with stigma, but unless you visibly act against stigma, people will assume the worst.
When my mum became sick I didn’t ask for help, because I didn’t know who was safe to ask. I didn’t know how people would respond. I didn’t know if they’d respond at all.
The general population doesn’t understand mental illness because they’ve never been taught. On top of that, the sufferers themselves don’t understand because they’ve never been taught either.
Ignorance in Sufferers
Ignorance ensnares the sufferers, cutting them off from help. Doctors and people can fail to notice sufferers of mental illness. Typically, to get proper attention and care, a sufferer either realises what is happening, or experiences a crisis. Too many are in the latter category, my mum included.
Why is this? Because they don’t know. Sufferers are not born with knowledge about mental illness. They need to be taught. To catch future sufferers we need to teach everyone — early. Growing up ignorant in an ignorant society, sufferers often don’t recognise their symptoms until too late.
My mum’s crisis ended well, but unfortunately not everyone is so lucky.
Ignorance in Loved Ones
Ignorance ensnares loved ones of sufferers and unofficial carers. Not only is living with a mental illness hard, living with a sufferer is hard too. Ignorance strains relationships and delays self-help.
I said that stigma stopped me from asking for help, but there was another problem, rooted in my own ignorance: I didn’t know what to ask. I didn’t know what sort of help I needed. I didn’t know if I even needed help — after all, my mum was the sick one, not me.
It was six months after my mum’s crisis that her psychologist suggested I see one as well. Particularly for severe cases, therapy for those close to a sufferer of mental illness can be necessary.
Because of ignorance, I withdrew from my mum, despite years of close relationship. Through therapy we broke down our personal ignorance barriers, and then we learnt new ways to communicate. This process took over a year, and now we are closer than ever.
So, we’ve looked at the three areas ignorance-causing-stigma damages: society, sufferers, and their loved ones and unofficial carers. But how do we act against ignorance?
I have two suggestions. Firstly, educate yourself — sticking to trustworthy sites such as beyond blue and lifeline. Remember, of course, when you do this mental illness is a very complicated and broad spectrum. Every person’s experience is different and real.
Secondly, and most importantly, talk about it. Be visible. Ask questions and spark group discussion. Make yourself publically and visibly known as “safe” person.
The Task of Everyday People
Look for ways to bring it up in conversation — the media, as well as awareness campaigns provide many opportunities. From this you will likely find people with personal experiences appearing in your life, because you become a safe person.
If you are unsure how to act with a sufferer, try imagining that the person has an “ordinary” disease, such as cancer. What is your role? You stay in easy access, you communicate with them, you keep them feeling in-touch with the community, you visit them, you invite them out to coffee, you understand if they are too tired to leave the house, and you encourage them to follow their doctor’s instructions.
Inaction Leads To Stigma
Remember, when this day passes, and the weeks pass, and the months: inaction supports stigma, because inaction allows ignorance to reign. Once we push through stigma, we need to step up and act.
Act to fight against stigma. Act to help those ignorance ensnares: society struggling with isolating stigma, and sufferers and their loved ones and carers struggling with confusion and delayed treatment. Act to teach yourself. Act to teach others. Act to make yourself a safe person. Act to make this world a safe place.
I will leave you with these final thoughts: for many, the illness that makes them sufferers stops them from standing up and breaking down the barrier of stigma in society. So it is up to those of us who can to take the first step, the hardest step.
While one person can’t know everything about mental illness, if we all act in the areas we know, together we can make a difference. Together we can bring down the biggest enemy of mental illness: ignorance.