Seeking to be healthy in spite of the stigma

On Oct. 13, 2023, National Public Radio’s The Pulse came to the heart of what stigma actually is:

“Dealing with a serious or chronic health condition is hard enough — but what happens when that condition comes with moral judgment? That’s the case for millions of people around the world. From obesity to lung cancer, sexually transmitted diseases to mental illness, stigmatized conditions are shrouded in shame and blame that can not only hinder treatment — but ruin lives.”

Better Health Channel addresses the stigma toward mental health as the shaming that it is.

“Stigma happens when a person defines someone by their illness rather than who they are as an individual, the article, Stigma, Discrimination and Mental Illness, says. “For example, they might be labelled ‘psychotic’ rather than ‘a person experiencing psychosis’.”

For people with mental health issues, the article continues, the social stigma and discrimination they experience can make their problems worse, making it harder to recover. It may cause the person to avoid getting the help they need because of the fear of being stigmatized.

When a mental illness also involves a substance addiction, the stigma intensifies.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also removed the polite definitions of stigma, defining it as “a mark of shame, disgrace or disapproval that results in an individual being rejected, discriminated against and excluded from participating in a number of different areas of society.”

A 2009 article, Stigma and Help-Seeking, published by the British Psychological Society, states, in part, that public stigma is society’s rejection of a person due to certain behaviors or physical appearances that are deemed unacceptable, dangerous or frightening.

The article continues, saying: There is also a public stigma associated with seeking professional services, separate from the public stigma associated with mental illness. With this stigma, what one suffers from is less important than the simple behavior of seeking psychological help, whether that is for a chronic, diagnosable mental disorder or for processing the death of a loved one.

“Simply seeking professional psychological help appears to carry its own mark of disgrace,” the article points out. “Research indicates that people tend to stigmatize clients more than they stigmatize non-clients.”

Yet, for those who want to seek help in becoming healthier, it can be a matter of changing one’s own perspective.

Molina Psychiatric Associates, P.A. states: One of the key factors contributing to the stigma around mental health is the belief that seeking help is a sign of weakness or inadequacy. However, in reality, recognizing the need for assistance and reaching out for support is an act of courage and strength. It is a step towards self-care and empowerment.

The first step in seeking help is to understand what mental health conditions are, and how they effect one’s life.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) describes mental illnesses as health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these).* Mental illnesses can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

“Mental health conditions are treatable and improvement is possible,” says the APA . “Many people with mental health conditions return to full functioning. Some mental illness is preventable.”

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, says the APA. It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions.

Mental health treatment is based upon an individualized plan developed collaboratively with a mental health clinician and an individual (and family members if the individual desires). It may include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication or other treatments. Often a combination of therapy and medication is most effective.

*The American Psychiatric Association article, What is Mental Illness, can be read at: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness


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