Whenever I meet someone new, I go through an internal conflict about when the right time is to show them the ‘full’ me. We all do it to some extent. Is it okay to swear? Can I say Trump’s a dickhead, or will they accuse me of being fake news media?
But with me, it’s always, “when do I tell them I have a disability?” and “when do I tell them I have mental health problems?” In some scenarios, it can induce heart-pounding terror. Like, sweating bullets level of fear.
Why? Because mental health stigma is very much still alive and well in 2020.
How much do I tell them?
When I settled into my new job, I was losing sleep about telling my bosses about my various illnesses. It honestly felt like I’d kept a huge dirty secret from them in the interview process. Now that I was telling them, it felt like I was about to rip off my face mask to unleash an enormous swamp monster.
Luckily, it wasn’t like that at all. They were lovely about it and just wanted to make sure they could support me in the best possible way. In their words, everyone has something going on – and that’s okay!
I remember feeling the same way with my boyfriend’s parents. When I met them, I really wanted to impress them. But I felt that being mentally unwell was going to affect their opinion of me.
I wanted to be Perfect ™ for their son, to fit into their family, to be Normal ™. So I hid all the ‘bad’ parts away. But, I couldn’t realistically keep this mask on forever, and it’s with happiness that five years on, they know me inside out. I’d even say they pretty much love me as one of their own!
How does stigma affect mental health?
As unfounded as these fears were and are, they exist in my mind for a reason. I’ve experienced mental health stigma first-hand many times, having been told things like:
“I would think about whether you really want this job”
“You’re not depressed, you’re just hormonal.”
“You just need to chill out.”
These are just three examples. I have heard plenty of horrible things over the years about my mental health, and it really hurts. When I experience stigma, I feel judged, misunderstood, and criticised. This feels so much more overwhelming when you’re in a low place.
I’ve experienced stigma in the workplace (don’t worry, not my current one!) which felt scary, threatening, and disappointing all at the same time. In instances when I’ve encountered it from my friends, my heart has pretty much broken altogether.
Mental health stigma statistics
I’m not alone in my experiences. It’s important to realise that we still have a long way to go for changing the conversation around mental health.
Here are some stats from the Survey of Public Attitudes to Mental Illness, conducted in Wales by Kantar on behalf of Time to Change Wales in 2019 that’ll (hopefully) drop your jaw:
1 in 8 people believe that as soon as a person shows signs of mental illness they should be hospitalised.
1 in 10 people consider that one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and willpower.
1 in 12 people consider that people with mental illness should not be given any responsibility.
1 in 12 people believe that a woman would be foolish to marry a man who has suffered from mental illness, even though he seems fully recovered.
1 in 12 people think it is frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods.
1 in 16 people would not want to live next door to someone who has been mentally ill.
Fact: experiences of stigma vary hugely between groups
These stats shocked even me – and I’ve been living with depression, anxiety, and PTSD since childhood.
A vital element to consider when thinking about mental health stigma is that we don’t encounter it equally. Experiences vary hugely between conditions, age groups, genders, and ethnic minority communities.
In a survey commissioned by Time to Change of people from minority ethnic groups with mental health problems, 28% of Black Caribbean and 31% of African respondents reported that they had directly experienced racism within mental healthservices during the preceding 12 months. (300 Voices Toolkit)
Detention rates under the Mental Health Act recorded during 2012 were 2.2 times higher for people of African origin and 4.2 times higher for those of Caribbean origin than the average. In a survey of median hospital admission periods, the median number of days black Caribbean men spent in psychiatric hospital (345) was more than twice those spent by people of white British origin (161). (300 Voices Toolkit)
3/4 of men wouldn’t feel able to say openly that they have a mental health problem to friends – with the majority preferring to give another reason for fear of being seen as a burden (Time to Change 2019)
Research shows that 74% of people with experience of a less common mental health problem (such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and personality disorders) said fear of stigma and discrimination stops them from doing the things they want to do(Time to Change 2020)
In a 2014 survey, it was found that a shocking 93% of people from Black and Minority Ethnic communities who have mental health problems face discrimination because of them(Time to Change 2014)
The most common areas of mental health discrimination for Black and Minority Ethnic communities are making and keeping friends (68%), being shunned by people that know they have a mental health problem (68%), in finding (68%) and keeping a job (67%) and in social life (67%), meaning mental health problems are becoming life-limiting for some people.(Time to Change 2014)
In a study conducted by YMCA and YouthSight, 50% of 11 to 17-year-olds experiencing mental health difficulties said they have been subjected to this stigma, compared to 33% of 18 to 24-year-olds. (I Am Whole 2016)
In the same study, males tended to experience stigma more regularly than females, with 49% of males experiencing it at least once a week compared to 31% of females.(I Am Whole 2016)
How do you stop mental health stigma?
The biggest change we can make is to challenge our own thoughts and ideas around mental health. We can all open our minds towards learning more about it – even if we experience mental health problems ourselves. Here are some things you can do to get started:
Take the Time to Change Mental Health Quiz: how much do you really know about mental health? Find out here and pass it along to a friend!
Read some personal stories by those who experience mental health problems first hand. Time to Change, Mind, and Young Minds feature plenty of them, and both Time to Change and Mind have website functions which allow you to select the category that interests you most.
Look at the language that is derogatory and contributes to mental health stigma here. Do you use any of these terms without realising their true impact? I know that I’ve used terms like ‘suffering from [x/y/z]’ so I’ll be making sure not to use that in future!
Speak kindly to yourself. We can stigmatise our own mental health and use it as a weapon to degrade ourselves. For example: “Oh god, I drank so much the other night and turned psycho.” By challenging the way you think about your own mental health, you can change the way you think about it in others. You can check out my blog about negative self-talk, if you like!
It’s heartbreaking to hear these statistics, you’re right Ian. It really shocked me to find these studies, and to know that so many people think this about me, other people I love, and anyone else living with mental illness hurts a lot. However, I know that the fight to end stigma has come a long way, so I do feel hopeful for the future.
What an excellent blog. I've learnt so much from reading it. I have a limited experience of mental health issues but I do know how difficult it is for some people to understand what it's like. It's because it's a 'hidden' illness, if you know what I mean. People think, "oh they look all right and they're having a good time" etc, etc., My son Tosh had a few issues but you would never have guessed on meeting him. Also he didn't like talking about it but after he got help and opened up, things got a lot better for him and us. Well done Seren. Keep on blogging. xxxx
Ninette, thank you so much for your lovely comment! I really appreciate the time you've taken to read and leave feedback. Of course! I write a lot about invisible illness, and how it can create a lot of misunderstanding and stigma. I was very unwell at school, but because I was so deeply ashamed of my mental health problems, I developed an incredibly convincing mask. Aside from a very sarcastic and cutting sense of humour, no one would know that I had depression, anxiety, or PTSD. I'm sorry to hear Tosh had problems, but I'm really glad he got the help he needed. It's much harder for boys, who grow up thinking emotions are bad and they should 'man up', to discuss their mental health. There are so many barriers, and this gets even more complicated when you consider different cultural expectations as well.
The biggest thing for me was overcoming the shame of my mental health. I felt dirty / weak / ashamed. I really don't want young people to grow up feeling the same way, as it impacted me hugely.
Thank you so much again, especially for sharing your experience with Tosh <3
Lots of love xxx