How apt that this article begins this year of writing in much the same vein that last year ended, with a discussion around Mental Health and the stigma in our society. With a year having elapsed I thought it would be worthwhile to consider the kind of lengths and efforts that have been made to continue down the long path of removing the stigma around Mental Health. While many people will say that stigma is changing I can speak from first-hand experience that it continues to exist in very powerful ways.
Those who know me know that I often speak of Mental Health as one of ‘the last great civil rights barrier we as a society have to cross’. The conversation on mental health is relatively new, and as a result time and the progression of society towards greater equality in those areas has allowed for significant reduction in barriers for those oppressed.
The first issue in addressing this ever present stigma is to recognize the fact that Mental Health and Mental Illness are not interchangeable terms, they do not mean the same thing. Yet, I so often hear people speak of them in ways that do not make sense, simply because they do not know the difference.
Picture two circles, a smaller one sitting inside a much larger one, the smaller one is Mental Illness while the larger one is Mental Health. Mental Illness is a component of Mental Health, but it is not the only one. There are a number of other factors that make up a person’s mental health, and a person does not necessarily have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to be concerned for their own mental well-being.
The second is the way in which I hear people still refer to those suffering from the most serious mental illnesses as ‘mental’, ‘strange’, ‘weird’ and so on. Such terms hurt and are wholly inappropriate in a world where we claim society is working to end stigma. You wouldn’t use terms such as ‘retard’ or ‘fag’ when describing other minority groups, so why use ‘mental’? The impact of words goes far beyond one person’s usage. Not long ago I spoke to a friend, who has been diagnosed with a mental illness and they told me how on the walk from the bus terminal to their apartment they were likely to see a few ‘crazies’ that night. This should immediately raise a red flag, for stigma becomes significantly out of hand when those who identify with a particular group begin to self-stigmatize.
The third way is how we view Mental Health in our society, as a person with a diagnosed mental illness and having visited the new hospital here in St. Catharines it was struck by the fact that the mental health ward was at the very back of the hospital, hidden away and out of sight. What kind of message does this continue to send those who may be suffering? More importantly, if we consider approximately a quarter of people will experience some issue with Mental Health in their lifetime, would it not make sense to place such facilities in common view?
Now, while all of this has been said it is certainly not my intention to undercut the excellent work that mental health agencies across the region, province and internationally continue to do. Awareness is expanding and support is getting better, instead it is my aim to bring light to the fact that while it is excellent to participate in #BellLetsTalk Day, the conversation does not end at midnight on January 27th, it continues for the other 364 days.
Living with a mental illness is a constant struggle, and it is part of who you are. But it is only a part, it will only define you if you let it. For some it will pass, for others it will not, but for all it is a struggle that you will only worsen if you allow yourself to be part of the stigma rather than the solution. This is why I continue to advocate, through my volunteering I have met individuals who, while getting the support to cope and succeed, thank me for what I do. But that is not why I do it. I do it for all those suffering with mental illness or mental health issues that cannot advocate for themselves, I am extremely fortunate that my situation allows me to still talk about what I am experiencing, and for that I have to continue giving my voice to those who cannot speak.
The stigma ends with you, only together can something be done about it. It is not acceptable to poke fun at someone’s physical disability, so why then does anyone think it is okay to do so if it is invisible?
Whether you are suffering or know someone who is, reach out to www.brocku.ca/mental-health for more information. At the end of the day, people are just people, and deserve to be treated as such. They are individuals living with mental health issues, but they are an individual, a person first. I dream of a day where I can speak freely about my illness and not be judged for it, but rather have it accepted and embraced. Together, I believe that this stigma is no barrier at all.