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Why we need to challenge stigma around mental health and reframe our unconscious bias

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We are moving in the right direction of raising awareness about looking after our mental health and being able to talk about how we feel if we are experiencing some mental ill health or distress. 

However, often people feel there still remains a stigma in sharing when you may be struggling with your mental health, and this stigma can prevent people talking about how they feel or seeking professional support if that is indicated.


What do we mean by stigma? 

There are various pieces written about stigma, what they have in common though is that whatever the 'stigma' is attached to, is seen as having less value when we think about stigma in relation to mental illness this was often seen as the person being: 

  • Weak of character
  • It was a shame for the family
  • At points in history even having a family member with a mental illness may make you less likely to find a suitable marriage as people wanted to avoid marrying anyone with mental illness in the family
  • Often to avoid bringing shame on the family, someone who was ill was locked away in an asylum and the reasons people could be locked away were many and varied. This piece by the BBC may be of interest on Sarah Wise Author, and the inspiration behind her book 'Inconvenient People'.
  •  There could be beliefs that someone with a mental illness was dangerous, could be violent and often this belief was perpetuated in films and other media.

While we may think, this was years ago, things have moved on from then, this piece by the Mental Health Foundation shows that social stigma for many people still exists  This may be in part that unconscious bias has evolved around mental illness.

''bias that results from the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one's conscious or declared beliefs'' 

The challenge with unconscious bias is, we may not even be aware which can meanwhile on the one hand we say, it's okay to talk about not feeling okay. Unconsciously the bias remains that we shouldn't for fear of being judged.

So what can we do?

Interesting research around the use of unconscious bias-informed educational strategies being a potentially useful tool for stigma-reduction interventions has been carried ou.t 

Programmes like the See Me Anti Stigma Campaign also seeks to challenge stigma and promote the message it is okay, not to be okay. 

However, the most powerful way we can challenge stigma and discrimination is by taking responsibility as individuals to be kinder to each other, to seek to understand not judge, and to imagine walking a mile in someone else's shoes.

When someone is experiencing mental illness it means we can feel:

  • very alone 
  • afraid
  • beat ourselves up 
  • getting angry at why we feel this way.

Remember we can all have an unconscious bias around mental illness, so if we ourselves find we have an illness all those thoughts we previously had about others, we are now applying to ourselves and we realise, giving ourselves a good shake isn't the answer, we need something more, we need to experience compassion from others.

We made this video, 'Message to the world' to try and help us all realise at some time we all may experience a challenge to our mental health.

This may be the loss of a loved one, redundancy, a threat to our life or the life of a loved one. 

Perhaps if we all recognise anyone of us can experience a mental illness or distress at a life event, the stigma of seeing others as different, or of less value, will go, as we realise there is not us and them, only we, and we all matter. Sometimes stigma is challenged one conversation at a time if someone is unwell, they are suffering enough, please be kind and start a conversation, sometimes talking can help save someone's life, including our own.

Grief is probably one of the sources of suffering we all have in common, we are grateful to the kind person who following the death of his cousin, did a lot of online research to find something which offered comfort, he then shared these resources with us, to share with others. 

Together we can beat stigma, so everyone feels safe to say 'I don't feel okay'

Guest Blog Tammy Wells
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