Each year, October 10th marks World Mental Health Day where people around the globe raise awareness for mental health to try and help those who are suffering. But one of the major barriers to helping are the social stigma's that still encompass mental illnesses. Loads of people still question the very existence of mental illnesses, saying people are just 'looking for attention' which we need to help fight. Although people from all cultures and walks of life experience these unwanted stereotypes, there are a particular few that are less likely to ask for help.
In the UK alone, ethnic minorities such as South Asians are often the last to seek help for mental health issues despite the prevalence of depression and anxiety being higher in this community than others. Because in these communities it's often the case that if you aren't suffering from physical pain, why would you ever go to the doctor? In consequence this community are often the ones to suffer from lower life expectancy rates and general poor health outcomes. Whilst there are many contributing reasons to this phenomenon, such as language barriers or a general lack of awareness of available services, it is the cultural stigma surrounding mental health that is arguably one of the most prominent driving forces. And anyone who has suffered from mental illness can tell you that you can't get through it on your own.
Asian and Middle Eastern communities still suffer from a culture of shame and silence surrounding mental health, especially when it comes to their own families. Many fear that a family members diagnosis of a mental illness will bring shame upon the rest of the family and ruin their 'reputation', whilst others fear that no one will want to marry them if they're labelled as 'crazy'. But mental illness is unfortunately not something that one can just 'get over'.
Perceptions are slowly changing over time with more people feeling comfortable to report their sufferings. However cultural stigmas still somewhat linger in the fabric of our society. So in honour of World Mental Health Day, muzmatch have put together five ways you can help change mental health stigmas and make this world a bit of a better place. Share, discuss and educate, because the deafening silence around mental health is a slippery slope.
“I fight stigma by reminding people that their language matters. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives and in my experience, most people are willing to replace their usage of it with something else if I explain why their language is problematic.” – Helmi Henkin
Often we'll hear that someone is feeling down, or experiencing anxiety and come back with 'just think about others who have it worse than you' and 'you'll get over it'. Although said with the best intentions (most of the time), these words can often make someone who is mentally ill just feel worse about themselves. Even though mental illnesses can be triggered by environmental causes, but these individuals are biologically predisposed to a certain disorder. No one chooses to be mentally ill, just like no one can change their disease with a click of a finger.
Instead of saying things that may hinder someone's recovery process, it may be more helpful to let them know you're there to listen. Mental illness can be incredibly socially isolating and symptoms can be exacerbated by loneliness. Just ensuring your loved ones that you're there for them if they need to chat through whatever they're feeling is better than nothing.
“I take every opportunity to educate people and share my personal story and struggles with mental illness. It doesn't matter where I am, if I over-hear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, or anything regarding a similar subject, I always try to use that as a learning opportunity and gently intervene and kindly express how this makes me feel, and how we need to stop this because it only adds to the stigma.” – Sara Bean
Learning about mental health is essential to fighting against the stigma surrounding mental illness. Although having a day dedicated to raising awareness for mental health is amazing, the education should and needs to continue beyond this. Whether it's you suffering from a mental illness or a loved one, mental health effects us all to some extent.
Luckily, there are millions of resources out there now that are easily digestible and really informative. Documentaries such as Thin (eating disorders) or Don't Call Me Crazy (various illnesses) can be watched on Youtube or Netflix. TED talks can also be a powerful way to learn more about mental health. Guy Winch's talk on loneliness should be on your watch list, as well as Andrew Solomon's discussion on depression. Mind, the UK based charity is also an extremely useful source of information.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all – Bill Clinton
Human beings are riddled with cognitive biases, prejudice and stereotypical thoughts; it's just in our nature. But being aware of these biases is the first step in helping change mental health stigmas. Research studies have demonstrated that often people will say what they think but unconsciously, actually believe something else entirely. For example, in one study, people said they thought that those who suffer with mental illnesses are helpless but not blameworthy, but their implicit beliefs suggested they thought these people were helpless and blameworthy. So basically, if you found out that your colleague at work had bipolar disorder, you'd probably say that you know it's not their fault and your opinion of them doesn't change. But, you may also find yourself unconsciously turning down lunch invitations with them.
These implicit biases are caused by many factors that just aren't in our control to change. But what we can change is our behaviour. Make a conscious effort to go to lunch with that colleague and fight against the implicit bias. In turn, you'll help fight the mental health stigma.
“I fight stigma by not having stigma for myself—not hiding from this world in shame, but being a productive member of society. I volunteer at church, have friends, and I’m a peer mentor and a mom. I take my treatment seriously. I'm purpose driven and want to show others they can live a meaningful life even while battling [mental illness].” – Jamie Brown
If you yourself are suffering with a mental illness, then don't suffer in silence (as long as you feel safe doing so). Speaking out about your mental health can create a domino effect in allowing others to feel comfortable talking about themselves as well. Your mental illness does not make you weak, it is not your fault, and it is definitely okay to talk about it. Choose empowerment over shame because no one should dictate how you feel about your mental health.
I’ve lost count throughout my life how many times I’ve been told that any doubts and difficulties I encounter are due to a weakness in my faith. – Rabbil Sidkar
Relating mental health to the supernatural has been an issue since the early 1900s when people with psychological problems would be labelled as 'possessed' by the spirits. Unfortunately, these assumptions have somewhat been carried on by some communities. Many South Asian families will often cry 'jinn' any time someone experiences symptoms associated with mental illness such as hallucinations. In Islam, jinn are supernatural creatures that are made of smokeless fire and can harm humans. These beliefs can interfere in the treatment of mental illnesses as many may choose to visit their religious leader instead of a medical professional. However, mental illness is something that is caused by factors separate from a supernatural world and also have cures that are separate from the supernatural.
As Muslims we often get told that any issues or ailments we face can simply be cured by the power of prayer. Moreover, actively discouraging people from seeking treatment and to 'leave it in Gods hands instead' is incredibly reckless (the Quran does not discourage seeking mental health treatments). Albeit this is slowly changing as people get more comfortable talking about mental health, but we've still got a ways to go.