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Understanding mental health and reducing stigma

06 October, 2015
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Individuals who experience mental illness commonly report discrimination and a lack of understanding that comes along with this type of illness. Of the 400 million people who suffer mental illness worldwide, only 20% will seek any form of treatment – perhaps in part, because they feel they may be shunned, excluded or otherwise judged. The fear of being tainted with a mark of disgrace can be enough to leave millions of people suffering their illness alone.

Anyone can experience mental illness. In fact, according to research by the QLD Government, an estimated 45% of all Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage of their lives.

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, and may affect one’s ability to function in everyday life. It refers to a wide range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, eating disorders, and addictive behaviours.

On its own, mental illness can be very difficult to deal with but, when faced with the stigma that’s so often attached to it, it can become a lot harder. Many people living with mental illness report that the stigma and discrimination they receive from friends, family, colleagues, the community, and sometimes even health professionals, can be more disabling than the mental illness itself. 

 Mental illness stigma can lead to sufferers being:

  • Overlooked for job vacancies, or even refused employment;
  • Denied housing or accommodation;
  • Discriminated against in the workplace;
  • Shunned or excluded from family or friendship groups;
  • Socially distanced;
  • Unfairly shamed or even bullied. 
The effects of stigma can come from a wide range of sources, from family members to friends, from co-workers to employers, and insurance companies to healthcare institutions. Individually, each source represents a major barrier to getting better, and collectively they can be profoundly damaging and difficult to overcome.Mental Health 1

When continually faced with negativity from others, discrimination can become internalised and lead to self-stigma. Repeatedly told they are responsible for their illness, people who suffer from mental illness can sometimes begin to believe this is true and feel consumed with self-hatred or the belief they will never get better. 

The media’s role

The media is essential to reducing the stigma attached to mental illness. It plays an important role in determining public attitudes. Myths and misconceptions about mental illness are continually reinforced by stereotypical and often destructive media images.

The media can be quick to discuss the mental health of a person who has walked into a high school and opened fire, yet journalists tend to rarely discuss what a psychotic break looks like or the fact that the vast majority of people with mental disorders are not violent. Mental illness actually has very little to do with violence as a whole.

Another matter that is often overlooked is that mentally ill people can get better with treatment, recover, and go on to lead productive lives.

The community’s role

Stereotyping people with mental illness as being dangerous, unpredictable, or responsible for their illness, can lead to active discrimination, such as excluding them from employment, social or educational opportunities.

Eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness starts with the individual. But how can you help?

Realise the numbers

Nearly half of all Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. It does not discriminate, and can strike people of every race, gender and economic background. It is a serious medical condition, and not a condition that can always be overcome by willpower alone.

Practice empathy and seek self-education

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A lack of empathy is the biggest hurdle many people with mental illness face. Take the time to listen. Make the effort to be friendly to strangers - you never know, you could be the only person to take an interest in that person all week.

Be careful what you say

Speak with dignity and respect, and choose your words carefully. Use considerate language, emphasise abilities instead of limitations, and put the person foremost, not the disability or illness. Remember, everyone is human.

Speak up

If you hear someone expressing a negative attitude about mental illness, always consider your own safety first, but don’t be afraid to speak out against it. Use your knowledge on mental illness for good, and inform others about the truth. Their opinion may just be based on an incorrect belief that could be easily altered with the right information.

Help raise awareness

As well as speaking out against discriminating views, speak openly about mental health policies and programs and lend your support when you can. Foster a healthy workplace environment, and establish a culture in which others feel supported when faced with the symptoms of mental illness.
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Look after your own mind

Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame in your own mind, and be proactive in seeking treatment if you think you might need it. Understand that mental illness is not a sign of personal weakness. Seek help and educate yourself and others of your condition.

Stigma tarnishes the lives of people with mental illness, causes stress and unhappiness for their family and friends, and deters people from seeking treatment. It’s time to realise that our misconceptions and discriminative views are standing in the way of a healthier, more engaged world.

All information in this article is intended for general information purposes only. Information should not be considered medical advice and is in no way intended to replace a consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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