Removing the Stigma – Seeing Mental Health as… Health.

I want you to picture two people in your mind. The first is a woman with no hair. She is wearing a bandana and a weak smile. She finds it hard to have the strength to keep her head up for entire conversations. She is a cancer survivor. She has just finished her second round of treatment.

Can you picture her? How do you feel towards her? How do you see her family reacting towards her? Her friends? Who do you see around her? How would you react if she talked to you on the street? Interviewed with you for a job?

Now picture a second woman. She is also wearing a weak smile but no bandana. She also finds it hard to have the strength to keep her head up for entire conversations. She is also a survivor but of suicide. She has just survived her second suicide attempt and still battles depression.

Can you picture her? How do you feel towards her? How do you see her family reacting towards her? Her friends? Who do you see around her? How would you react if she talked to you on the street? Interviewed with you for a job?

These two women have both been fighting and struggling with their health. They both had gotten to a point where they knew they needed medical intervention. They have both sought for help. They are both fighters. If your thoughts are more along the lines of mainstream thinking there is a completely different picture of both of them. One is seen and strong and the other weak. One is seen as overcoming the odds and the other is seen as giving in and giving up.

The Danger of Stigma

A stigma is the negative perception of the population. It stems from marks, symptoms, or characteristics of diseases. A person who showed those marks were shunned and outcasted to save the community. That same negative perception follows depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

This stigma isn’t warranted. There are headlines of mentally ill persons shooting kids or other groups of people. These headlines don’t paint an accurate picture. Less than 1% of annual gun related homicides are from someone who has a diagnosed mental issue. A far greater number are attributed to alcohol and substance abuse. 

The stigma comes from perceptions. Perceptions painted on the canvas of the news media and politicians. Like the stats of airplane crashes and automobile accidents the reality is a much smaller group than it appears to be. In a national poll in 2013 46% of respondents believed that mentally ill people are far more dangerous than the general population, 67% were unwilling to have a person with mental illness as a neighbor, and 71% were unwilling to have a person with mental illness work closely with them on a job. We are still scared.

The damage that is being done by this stigma is irreversible. It is typical for a person who has mental health problems to hide them in public. This because of the fear of being turned away, not being hireable, not being able to measure up. Interestingly, these are often the same messages the person has to fight off over and over again inside their own mind. This fear is developed from the same stigma that has 71% of the population afraid to work closely with someone who has depression.

While the damage maybe irreversable, the attitudes aren’t. We can fix these perceptions. The reality is that most of us have dealt with a mental health issue in our lives, and all of us have been impacted by it.

Suicide compared to Cancer

Through the years it has become common to see multiple colors of ribbons and hear of cancer awareness events and looking for the cure. It has been depicted as courageous not to give up your life and fight to overcome cancer, which is beautiful and needed.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US according to the CDC. Being at the top of the list has its benefits. There have been lots of research and publicity and people want to help. Because of this focus there have been treatments created and hope discovered for people who fight it.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause for death in the US according to the CDC with cases increasing year over year. Because of the tenth spot it hasn’t received the same funding or publicity. As a result there have been very little change in the way that the general population views someone that has survived or contemplated taking their life or live with mental health issues. In fact with understanding and time the stigma has intensified. It is looked down on or even ignored and pushed aside with the thinking that if you don’t put attention on it it will go away. We are still ashamed.

Fighting the Fear & Ignorance

The first steps in countering the stigma is to be more open with our issues. We don’t try to hide broken bones and the flu. If we want people to think about our mental health in the same way as our health we need to be willing to talk.

I took a very hard step in doing that. It was my first. There was an opportunity to speak about depression in our community. I decided I wanted to share my story in hopes that I might be able to help someone else. Most cases of depression go undiagnosed. Most people feel they need to just square their shoulders and deal with it. I wanted to help other to know that they didn’t have to just deal with it.

I shared my story in a group of over 100 people and many of them close friends. After my presentation many people waited to talk with me privately. Those who knew me almost always started with “I had no idea.” then went on to share their experiences with depression or anxiety. It was through sharing my story that I realized that so many others feel the same. Maybe not the same way or the same intensity, but we all struggle at one time or another with the weight of depression and anxiety. Not only are we not alone, we are united.

I feel that as we share our stories the benefits will be two fold. We will help those who hear the stories and be inspired by them. People will feel more hope and will be empowered to take one more step. I feel it will also strengthen us. We will see the eyes and hearts of those around us and be lifted by them. I have been.

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