Over the past year there has been a light shined in the media on the importance of mental health. However, with more of us struggling with mental illness it’s indisputable that societal stigma, negative perception and judgment plays a huge role in preventing recovery. 

Mental health is something we all experience just like physical health, our mental state can change from happy or peaceful to anxious, fearful or sad. Although knowledge and understanding about mental health has expanded there is still significant stigmatising attitudes, some of the most common elements of stigma are as follows:

– Perceived weakness of character, inability to ‘push through the tough times’ 

– Perceived as dangerous characters, ‘crazy’ or ‘out of control’

– Feelings of shame and embarrassment to be labeled as ‘mentally ill’

– Perceived as irresponsible or unable to make independent decisions

These types of societal attitudes about mental illness reinforce stigmatising views that an individual internalises and adopts about themselves, serving to increase feelings of loneliness, depression and shame which in turn prevents acknowledgement and treatment of the illness. 

Self-stigma is the reactions of individuals who belong to the stigmatised group and turn the stigmatising attitudes towards themselves. For instance, the stereotype of blame, that individuals are responsible for their condition, can trigger internalised self stigma of embarrassment, secrecy and guilt often preventing the person from seeking help. 

As a society we need to make changes to the inaccurate stereotypes about mental illness in order reduce the impact of it. Common misconceptions about mental illness include the following: 

– The Myth: “Mental illness is incurable and lifelong”

– The Reality: When treated early and recognised as mental illness many people fully recover and live full and productive lives. For others mental illness may reoccur through their lives and require ongoing treatment, this is the same as many physical illnesses.

– Myth: “People with mental illness are usually dangerous and unpredictable’ 

– Reality: People with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent acts. You probably know many people with mental illness without realising it, there are many people with mental health issues who are productive members of society. 

– Myth: “Weakness and character flaws cause mental health problems”

– Reality: Mental illness has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. Factors that contribute to mental health problems include trauma, genetics, life experiences, physical illness or injury or even injustice.

– Myth: “Mental Illness is extremely rare” 

– Reality: Mental health and substance use disorder affects 13% of the worlds population, so we’ve all had an interaction with someone who has experienced mental health illness.

10-Steps to normalising support for family and friends with mental illness 

Listen without interrupting. This is important as it shows that you have time and respect for what they are sharing and conveys the message that you want to support them. 

Sharing your stories of mental health recovery is invaluable to bringing hope and courage to those suffering with mental illness and understanding of recovery to those who have not experienced mental illness.

Promote mental health campaigns through social media and online platforms. For example the use of hashtags to bring hope and awareness such as #SmashTheStigma or #IAmAnxiety to promote the idea of openness around the subject. 

Assist family and friends to get care and treatment for mental illness, this could be as easy as driving them to their appointment or finding and recommending someone they can speak with.

Encourage healthy attitudes about mental health throughout childhood and adolescence by normalising mental illness.

Treat them with respect and dignity, let them know you care and support them. 

Keep including them in plans without being overbearing, even if they turn down your invitations.

Suggest seeking help and support from their GP or mental health professional.

Avoid minimising someone’s experience with mental illness with statements such as “Oh don’t worry, we are all anxious” a helpful statement may be “You are not alone.”

Seek guidance from a health professional if you are worried about them hurting themselves or others.

Mental Illness is a health problem, a diagnosis needs to be taken as seriously as a physical illness for diabetes, asthma or cancer in order to help change the stigma. Fear and misunderstanding of Mental illness often leads to prejudices, even among health service providers, which is one of the main reasons people don’t consider it as a real health issue. 

We can all play a part in reducing mental health stigma, remember to treat everyone’s experience with kindness and respect, understanding that it may not be easy for them to share their experience of Mental Health with you. 

Emma McCallum, Crone Queen’s Mind Matters Editorial Expert,  is a Registered Practice Nurse with experience in Asia and Australia helping to facilitate non-invasive treatments for those suffering Mental Illness.