Feeling the Sting of Stigma
Ask anyone with mental illness: "What’s the worst part about mental
illness?" Most will say it’s the stigma.
By: Alberta Mental Health Board
It’s the deep-down, unspoken feelings that hurt the most. The
feelings that make us avoid the work colleague who’s been treated for
depression. Or ignore the family member who sits alone in a corner, apparently
in a different world. Or tiptoe around the child who seems so sullen and angry
all the time.
Just as damaging are the stereotypes about people with mental
illness: they can’t cope well. They can’t sustain personal relationships.
They’re violent and unreliable. They need to snap out of it and get their life
in order. Or they just don’t appreciate how good they really have it.
Why is the stigma so pervasive . . . when medical science has
long pointed to physical, chemical and even environmental causes of mental
"We know people have an immense fear of ‘losing their minds’,"
explains psychiatrist Dr. Roger Bland. "It’s a bigger fear for people than
losing their hearing or their sight."
Although medical breakthroughs have challenged some of society’s
outdated attitudes toward mental illness, we haven’t yet ended the stigma. "It’s
still very easy to blame and label people who develop mental illness," says Dr.
Pierre Beausejour, Chief of Staff and Director of Provincial Programs the
Alberta Mental Health Board.
The stigma experienced by people with mental illness can range
from overt (not renting apartments to people with illnesses) to subtle (avoiding
"the subject" around a work colleague who’s back from a mental health leave of
absence). And although most people try hard to not stigmatize, it’s admittedly
hard to "walk the talk."
What’s the best way to start walking the talk?
- Accept that mental illness is real illness. Mental
illness is as real as diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. It has well known
causes and a variety of treatment options.
- Stop associating blame with the illness. Recognize that
while people can take care of their physical and mental health, we cannot
completely control our destiny. Like diabetes, mental illness can just happen in
spite of our best efforts.
- Learn about mental illness. Take the time to learn about
mental illness. Learn about the symptoms and treatments. Find out where to get
help – in case you or someone you know needs help in the future.
- Stop looking for simple causes. Uncle Joe didn’t develop
mental illness because he stopped going to church . . . or because he lost his
job . . . or because of his strict mother . . . or because he’s lazy. Accept
that mental illness is an illness, and support his efforts to get the best help
- Get to know someone with mental illness. If someone you
know develops mental illness, stay close. Ask questions. Don’t abandon or tiptoe
around the person. Don’t try to shelter them from living. Be as supportive as
you would be to someone with any other illness.
- Watch your language. Stigma starts with labelling. How
often do people use the terms "looney," "nuts" or "a few cards shy of a deck?"
Don’t let labels dictate how you treat people.
- Open up the discussion at work. Next time someone goes
on a mental health leave, make a point of talking about mental illness in the
workplace. Take the hush out of it. Challenge workplace policies and practices
that are destructive to good mental health.
- Seek health professionals who walk the talk. Look for
physicians, counselors and therapists who know how to treat mental illness with
dignity, compassion and strength. Make sure your health professionals are
committed to managing your physical and mental health – and making you an active
partner in your care.