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The Stigma Still Exists

I’m sure most of you know this already and are not surprised by this title. The stigma surrounding mental health, in all of its shapes and forms, prevails across the globe, and in some cultures, it has much more substantial consequences than we are familiar with in the Western World.

In some Asian countries, for example, where emotional self-control is expected as a result of their collectivist culture, it is considered shameful to have a mental illness. In their view, of course, mental illness is not so much an illness as it is a consequence of poor choices and inability to handle oneself well.

In the Middle East, many countries look at mental illness in a very narrow perspective. You are either “normal” or you are insane. There really isn’t much in between (other than despair and disgrace).

Most of Africa follows the same path. Mental health is often looked down upon, avoided, feared, disrespected, and sometimes even the cause of anger and shame.

The reasons that made the stigma possible around mental health include everything from education (or lack thereof) to witchcraft, and from cultural prejudices to religious beliefs.

Mental health stigma seems to exist mostly in poor and developing countries that do not have many resources to remove that stigma, and sometimes, they don’t even have the time to be concerned with mental health stigma due to other difficulties that might be overwhelming the country.

Why, then, one might ask, does mental health stigma still exist in a country that is neither poor nor developing, a country that is the most powerful in the world? Why does the stigma still exist in the United States?

I had a friend who, for years, was struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, some anxiety, and some low self-esteem. It never occurred to him that he should seek therapy or any kind of mental health intervention. He felt that psychiatrists are for “crazy people,” and that depression is a personal failure he will never be able to change or overcome. On top of all of that, he was not able to share any of these problems with his family because he thought that they would feel shame and discomfort if they knew; that they would criticize him even more than they usually do for his lack of motivation, or as they might put it as “being lazy.”

Mental health stigma in America still exists because we, as a general population, lack psychological and emotional education, despite the fact that we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world. We do not do enough to educate our kids about mental health; and most of us do not do enough to educate them about general emotional wellbeing either. Mental health stigma in America still exists because the media outlets do not seem to be interested in destigmatizing it, although that might be slowly changing over the course of time. They do not put nearly as much emphasis on mental health as they do on physical health—that is for certain. Through certain media outlets such as movies and TV shows, mental illnesses are even portrayed through violence and aggression, which certainly does not help decrease the stigma. Finally, and most importantly, mental health stigma in America still exists because the government does not do nearly as needed to destigmatize it. In the best case scenario, some of our politicians talk about destigmatizing mental illnesses and to increase resources to access mental health facilities, without actually ever accomplishing much. In the worst case scenario, we have a politician that does not “believe” in mental illness—whatever that means—or the effects that it has on individuals who have it. To draw contrast in the simplest of ways, we have some free clinics throughout the country that help underserved populations with diagnosing and treating physical illnesses, but we do not have free clinics to help that same underserved population with diagnosing and treating their mental illnesses, despite the fact that 1 out of every 5 Americans has a mental illness.

Perhaps this month, which marks the 67th anniversary for the Mental Health Awareness Initiative, we can be just a little bit more proactive in destigmatizing mental health through having candid conversations about the stigma with our friends and family, and through contacting our congressmen and women to let them know how we feel about government intervention and assistance in destigmatizing mental health. You can find who your senator is here, and your house representative here.