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

mental health and reframe our unconscious bias

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

However, often, people feel a stigma in sharing when you are struggling with your mental health. This stigma can prevent people from 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. They have in common, though, that whatever the 'stigma' is attached to is seen as having less value. When we think about stigma concerning 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 disgracing 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 to 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 partly because an 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" (dictonary.com)

The challenge with an unconscious bias is that we may not even be aware, which can meanwhile, on the one hand, 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?

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

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

When someone is experiencing a mental illness, distress 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 find we have a condition all those thoughts we previously had about others, we are now applying to ourselves. 

We realise, giving ourselves a good shake isn't the answer. We need something more. We need to experience compassion from others.

Maybe if we all recognise that anyone can experience a mental illness or distress as a life event, the stigma of seeing others as different or less valuable will disappear. 

When we realise there is no 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. Letting someone know you are willing to listen precious. Sometimes talking and listening can help save someone's life, including our own.

You may also find these tips sheets on sharing when something is causing your distress and listening when someone wants to share helpful.

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