Time To Talk Day 2015: Ten things you can do to help combat stigma
by Sarah Graham Monday 02 February 2015 2278904
Thursday 5 February is Time To Talk Day, organised by the Time To Change campaign to encourage people around the UK to sit down, perhaps over a cup of tea, and have a five minute conversation about mental health. We asked RSCPP therapists to suggest ten simple things you can do on Time To Talk Day to help tackle stigma.
1. Talk about your own experiences
Although it could feel risky, talking about your experience is one of the best ways of tackling stigma, leading to less isolation and also encouraging the people who you're talking to to be more open. For several years my colleagues, and service users with lived experience of mental health difficulties, have run stigma tackling events on key days of the mental health calendar, such as Suicide Prevention Day, Self Care Week, and so on. On Time to Talk Day we will again be in Waterloo station, sharing conversations and information about mental wellbeing. Our stand is always extremely busy, with people wanting information, signposting and advice, especially about psychological therapy. Our strapline is 'Mental wellbeing: it's everyone's business', which takes us back to Time to Talk Day. Start a conversation, though it may feel risky at first, and you'll often find people respond well, leading to two people perhaps feeling less alone than they did.
Stigma is so harmful because it shames, ostracises, discriminates, and punishes people for being different. One way to deal with stigma - whether it stems from within or others - is to talk about your feelings with compassionate and trustworthy people. Reaching out to others can be very scary, but you can develop many resources to cope with your mental health condition. You may use these strengths to seek support from trusted family and friends. You may also enter into treatment with caring therapists, where you can work through and learn to better manage your issues (and the resulting stigma). Support from others can help you feel less alone, less ashamed, stronger, and more confident. Sharing your story can also help combat stigma because it educates others about mental illness and makes you more human, as opposed to something to be feared and ignored.
One of the problems with stigma about mental health is that you yourself may be influenced by negative beliefs and judgement, and ashamed of whatever problem you are dealing with. But you are not your illness or condition. So instead of saying, for example, "I am depressed" or "I am anxious", try instead saying "I experience depression" or "I experience anxiety". It's a big difference.
Talking with and relating to other people can challenge stigma and counteract your isolation. You could seek out a social or self-help group that feels right for you. Therapy groups, such as group analytic therapy, can help you to free yourself from labels and mobilise different aspects of yourself that you may have lost touch with through times of stress. Group analysis sees your distress as related to the social context in which you live.
Mental health difficulties have always been with us. Well known and gifted contributors to society have suffered with various mental health problems. From Churchill's 'black dog', to modern day examples such as Ruby Wax disclosing her difficulties, mental health has always been part of our society. There are countless examples in the research about gifted scientists, world leaders, and artists who had mental health problems. Mental health, and ill-health, exists on a continuum, on which we can all vary from day to day. We all know what a 'blue' Monday feels like. If this increases in severity and starts to stretch over a longer period, we start to move into the depression range of the continuum, for example. Feeling excitable and confident is something we may all experience from time to time and would count this as good or normal. Yet, should we then become somewhat reckless due to our confidence, spend most of our money and struggle to judge risk, we may be moving into the bipolar/mania sphere. Yet, we can all relate to what feeling confident and energised feels like. All mental health disorders relate to what we already are familiar with - our characteristics, personality and emotions, it just ends up being a matter of severity.
6. Acknowledge the mental health struggles of your friends and family
Ignorance about mental health difficulties creates fear and a 'them and us' scenario, where the person with the mental health condition is labelled with shameful stigma as 'them' and 'different', and us as 'normal'. The reality is, as always, more complicated and most of us suffer from some mental ill-health in our lives, be it something like anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress or bipolar disorder. There are ways you can help others manage such conditions and lead a fulfilling life. To combat the stigma that this ignorance creates, and the shame that goes with it, you need to acknowledge the mental health issues in your family and friends, and talk about them openly and compassionately.
Stigma is the product of ignorance and fear. Mental ill-health is stigmatised in our society because people fear and don't know how to respond to others' distress or inability to cope with everyday life. One way to dissolve stigma is to learn more and become familiar with people in distress. People with mental health issues are everywhere in society. Arrange for a representative from Mind to come and speak at a staff meeting, or get any volunteering job and challenge your own preconceived ideas about people who experience life differently from how you do.
Sometimes words can hurt more than actions. To practise combating stigma, try the "I, you, he/she" challenge. Think of a comment about another person. Let's take obesity, a common issue. Which words describing obesity might you use if you were talking about yourself or a friend, who you don't want to hurt ("I am..." or "you are...")? Which words might you use speaking about someone else, who you're not close to ("he/she is...")? Then imagine how it might feel to be described that way. How prized and valued would you feel? Words are powerful, for good or bad.
In discussions I've had recently with people experiencing mental health problems, about what would help, they all replied similarly: talk to them directly, instead of those who are with them. Many said going out in social/domestic circumstances may be hard enough but they also felt that people, including professionals, talked and looked at their companions, making them feel unimportant or, worse still, invisible.
Therapists can be significant in helping you to feel part of the human race again; helping you to transition from worrier to warrior; boosting your self-esteem; combating shame and stigma through normalising your mental health challenges; and counter-balancing any feelings that you are somehow failing or less of a person because of your struggles. When you can manage your mental health challenges, you can be a champion against stigma.
If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.