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Combating Mental Health Stigma

By Richard Snowdon MA (Merit) Psychoanalysis

To the ancient Greeks, stigma meant 'mark' or 'brand'. Today stigma indicates disapproval and negative ideas attached to a particular characteristic, condition, lifestyle, or people. People are 'marked' out especially when they are different or other to the majority. People with mental health problems have historically been stigmatised. This detrimental and discriminatory behaviour still exists today.

"Stigma (sti·gmã). 2.b. A distinguishing mark or characteristic (of a bad or objectionable kind); in Path. a sign of some specific disorder, as hysteria 1859". (1). 

 

Stigmatisation in action

Words which once had neutral descriptive meanings as psychiatric conditions such as 'cretin', 'imbecile''maniac', 'lunatic', and 'spastic', now have detrimental meanings. Mental health practitioners abandoned using these words to help free people with mental health problems from the detrimental meanings. But negative ideas about mental health still exist in society. These ideas still produce stigmatising language. Changing the names of mental health conditions has not been enough to combat mental health stigma. Having a mental health condition is distressing. Being stigmatised for it by others adds to the distress. Labelling someone a 'schizo' describes them as an illness rather than a person with an illness: imagine calling someone with a tumour a 'cancer'. When people think it is 'all in the mind' they may be less sympathetic. When people say to a depressed person 'pull yourself together' or the person thinks they are 'weak' it may hinder them seeking appropriate help. Of course, people have the right to call themselves what they like, but generally, none of us like being labelled by others.
 

What can be done to decrease stigma?

Fear of the unknown, fear of contamination, and sometimes fear of death can make people avoid those with mental health conditions. Negative ideas go unchallenged. As physical illnesses became understood the stigmas surrounding them decreased. People with mental health conditions remain vulnerable to stigma. It therefore seems important to understand mental health conditions, as increased understanding appears to be associated with less, not more stigmatisation. What can be done to combat mental health stigma:
  • Challenge negative ideas and prejudices in ourselves and others 
  • Stop using stigmatising language 
  • Increase our knowledge and inform others
  • Advocate improved autonomy, involvement in society, and legal protection for mental health patients.

Sources

(1). Little, W. Fowler, H.W. Coulson, J. Onions, C.T. Friedrichsen, G.WS.,(1986), The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles: Volume II Marl-Z and Addenda. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

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