Stigma and Mental Health!

She walked to her seat amidst stares and sneering whispers. She was the talk of her class. And why wouldn’t she be? She had spoken about her mental health problems – her worries and fears to a friend, assuming she would understand. She did understand, but so did the entire class. Not empathetic understanding but simply informational gossip. Some pitied her, some mocked her, some kept their distance and some thought it was simply an act to draw everyone’s attention. Each one had an opinion about her but none was concerned for her.

You might ask who would be so cruel to behave this way? Who would be so dry to not feel her pain? But the answer may well stun you. Majority of us would. Maybe not intentionally, but it is the way our thoughts and actions are wired in society. This is not a rare case, but the frequent norm. We’ve stigmatized mental health and illness for ages.

Mental illness has, for long, been considered a character defect and a result of personal weakness or bad karma, and the suffering individuals have often been looked at with contempt. We seem to blame them for their condition and decide it’s their lack of discipline and willpower which makes them vulnerable to mental health problems.  A large chunk of our population, even today, is highly judgmental about a mentally ill person; and would prefer to keep a safe distance from them, lest their healthy selves contract the illness! Some people report feelings of fear and worry at having to connect or interact with individuals having mental illness. These reactions clearly reflect the indifference and insensitivity of individuals towards people who have a mental health condition.

When asked to describe a person with mental illness, we tend to often subscribe to derogatory terms and cruel stereotypes. Remember recently calling some friend a ‘retard, crazy, mad, psycho’? Probably the friend is not affected by it because it was just a joke, but people who are suffering intangible psychological pain are being affected by the use of this foul language as it means one more label stuck to them.     

The picture portrayed in media of a mentally distressed person does no favour to eradicate the fallacies and myths that surround mental health. How often have you seen individuals with mental illness being shown in the media, as violent and unable to contribute to society? Often enough to come to the conclusion that they really are dangerous and unpredictable, not able to make anything of their life. We hesitate to allocate responsibility to them, doubting their caliber and skill, every chance we get.

Stigma prevents individuals suffering from mental illness to speak up openly about their concerns for fear of being judged and labelled. They may avoid seeking appropriate and essential intervention and may withdraw from people, further isolating themselves. They may lose confidence and not achieve their optimal potential.

Thatmate helps you open up about your problems by offering a patient listening. It also attempts to  help individuals cope with the associated stigma by spreading awareness and educating people about mental health and illness, its causes and consequences, etc. Individually, be careful with the words you use, rely on facts and look for positive stories of sustenance and growth rather than focusing on the associated lack and negativity. Emphasize that mental illness is a reality, not an imagined ailment and treat it the way you would a physical ailment. Be sensitive and learn to feel the emotions as they are and not the way society expects expression.

The hushed tones at the discussion table while talking about mental health issues resonate across Indian societies.

By Ms. Asmita Dalvi

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