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  • Writer's pictureEMILY KUMPIS

Stigma and Mental Health

What is stigma?

Stigma is when a person views you in a negative way because you have a distinctive characteristic or personal trait that's assumed to be, or is, a disadvantage. Stigma is the steppingstone towards discrimination.

A SANE Australia survey (2006) found that 74% of respondents living with a mental illness had experienced stigma. RUOK organisation found that 1 in 5 of Australians do not seek mental health support because of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

To further break down how stigma is formed Beyond Blue identifies 3 components that establish stigma on mental health:

1. Problems of knowledge (ignorance or misinformation – “People with depression are dangerous.”)

2. Problems of attitudes (prejudice ‐ “That’s right. People with depression are dangerous.”). This can lead to emotional reactions (for example, “Because they’re dangerous, I fear them.”)

3. Problems of behaviour (discrimination – “Because they’re dangerous, I will avoid them.”)

(“beyondblue Information Paper ‐ Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety”, (August 2015)

Research in Australia recently showing that most respondents (56 per cent) felt community attitude towards mental health was slowly improving, 37 per cent felt the attitude remained the same and 7 per cent considered it to be worse. Therefore, there is still a long way to go in properly breaking the stigma associated with mental health in Australia.

The negative impacts of stigma

Studies showed people suffering from mental illness who also endured stigma faced:

  • Reluctance to seek help or treatment

  • Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers, or others

  • Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing

  • Bullying, physical violence or harassment

  • The belief that you'll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation

  • The above examples are just some of the ongoing damaging impacts stigma has on Australians getting support for their mental health.

Representations of mental illness in movies and media

I am guessing most of you are familiar with movies such as ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ and ‘Psycho’ and of more recent ‘Split’ and ‘Joker.’ These films portraying main characters that appear ‘dangerous’ or ‘crazy’ or ‘out of control’ and ultimately are presenting an unrealistic or extremely rare presentations of untreated mental illness.

This can be challenging for people who suffer from a mental illness specifically if they have the same one as the main characters. For example: 'On a TV drama last night, a character with bipolar disorder was shown deliberately running someone over with a car. That sort of negative portrayal makes it hard for me to tell people that I have bipolar, and I have to explain that I’m not a ‘dangerous’ person.' (SANE, 2021).

About 40% of people report the media as the source of their belief linking serious mental illness with violence.

1 in 6 people with mental health problems say newspaper portrayals of mental illness generally discourage them from seeking help.

Mental illness is not ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ until its left untreated for an extended period of time. Even so someone with a mental illness is more likely to hurt themselves then others. Therefore, I believe a more accurate portrayal of mental illness needs to be mainstreamed into the media and movies to continue to support breaking down this stigma.

Tips and Tricks to continue the stop of stigma on mental health

1. Be mindful of where your information is coming from:

  • ‘Fact checking’ is vital to remain well educated and a skill to improve on if you feel you are not completing it often.

2. Attempt to remain openminded and curious around topics of mental health:

  • A great trick I teach clients is to start a response with ‘Oh that’s interesting...’ this allows time for you to process what you are hearing from the other person and shows curiosity when having open discussions.

3. Call it out if you know its wrong:

  • Spread your knowledge and understanding of mental health. Build your confidence to speak up and advocate if you feel mental health is being misrepresented around you.

4. Avoid isolating yourself:

  • Even if you don’t want to chat openly about how you’re feeling with someone close to you, connection is a basic human need, and it can increase the likelihood of seeking support.

5. Join a support group:

  • Reach out to groups that help support or educate people on mental health or the specific illness you may be diagnosed with.

6. Utilise the free helplines, live chats and forums from main mental health organisations such as:

  • Beyond Blue

  • SANE

  • Lifeline

  • Mensline Australia

  • Kids Helpline

7. Give therapy a go:

  • Psychologist, Counsellor’s, and Psychiatrists all specialise in mental health and disorders. They regularly use sessions with you to educate and normalise/explore your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. The clarity will be reassuring, the space to vent and talk regularly relieving and the intervention extremely helpful. You are simply looking after yourself to live a rich and meaningful life.

If you've been struggling during this challenging time, don't wait - seek help from your GP or a mental health professional. Working with a psychologist can help with implementing tools to help you managing this tricky transition. Broulee Psychology has clinicians with availability who are ready to support you.

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