The root meaning of the word stigma is sting; something that pierces to cause pain. Stigma associated with mental illness causes great mental anguish. It's an added burden that the sufferer of a mental illness doesn't need. Breaking the stigma associated with mental illness seems like an insurmountable mountain. Yet, in this present moment, there are many ways we can tackle this rugged ascent.
At the very least, we know in which direction we ought to be going...but where does one start? An old Chinese proverb says: The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. When it comes to mental illness, the many stones of stigma upon which we may stumble, come in many forms. They include:
* prejudicial attitudes
* discrimination in the workplace
* feelings of shame and/or negative self-view
* negative perceptions and/or distrust
* unpredictable and/or dangerous liaisons
* avoidance and/or pity
* gossip from peers and friendship losses
* under-estimation of abilities
* exclusion from social gatherings
* stigma from stereotypes/media portrayal
These barriers matter! They can stifle recovery and the contribution that the individual offers his community. Not long ago, I watched Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate; a film about Vincent van Gogh's final years. In it, the artist confronts stigma head-on but he paints, regardless. It was his way of dealing with the turmoil of his senses, a mindful activity destined for greatness.
We may not know anyone with the severity of mental illness as Vincent van Gogh, but stigma still exists. Imagine the many whose work will never inspire, whose contribution, ignored! If we are to stumble upon the slimmy stone of stigma then recognize its sting. Our mandate, as a collective whole, must include its dissolution.
Here are six ways in which we can contribute:
1. S - Say Something
I grew up in the 70s and spent carefree days in country Victoria. My sister and I frolicked in the woods and explored our world with wonder. My parents, however, remained silent about their mental health issues. The impact of WWII and emigrating to Australia were not something we were allowed to discuss. The very concept of a suggested weakness engendered shame. We are now more aware of the curative benefits of speaking up. Saying something, even if only amid family members, it is a good start.
2. T - Teach or Learn
Can you share a personal experience or teach about various mental health issues? There are many forums in which you can contribute. Online communities abound with information or presentations from keen participants. If you don't work in the mental health space then courses such as Mental Health First Aid can help. Education can break down those barriers. Ignorance breeds fear. Educate yourself. It will develop compassion.
3. I - Inclusion
Someone with a mental illness may very likely feel isolated and unsure about him or herself. Having an inclusionary attitude towards others, regardless of mental state, fosters well-being. Judgement towards anyone who displays symptoms of mental illness is unhelpful. Don Miguel Ruiz's Four Agreements talks about not making assumptions...now this is good judgement.
4. G - Give back
Contributing to the promotion of mental health is a step in the right direction. There are countless not-for-profit organisations that pour funds into research, programs and therapies. Participating in a fun run, an art expo, a morning tea or other community-driven event supports the aim.
5. M - Media savvy
The media is a blessing but it can also be a curse. Online bullying, negative stereotypes and offensive language can contribute towards stigma. We don't have to bombard ourselves with the unfavourable aspects. Rather, we can become media savvy. Switch channels/programs when you recognise offensive material. Support those who want to do the right thing and use media for the benefit of all.
6. A - Action
Lewis Cass stated that people may doubt what you say but they will believe in what you do. Speaking, as stated earlier, is a great place to start and in action, the mountain gets smaller and smaller. In action, we are able to connect the harness of support. In action, stigma's pain can be numbed. It doesn't matter how small the action. Small steps taken on a consistent basis will elevate us all; one stone at a time.
*Psychology Today: psychologytoday.com
*Beyond Blue: beyondblue.org.au
*Mental Health First Aid Australia: mhfa.com.au
*Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Foundation: anzmh.asn.au