Stamping Out The Stigma Around Mental Illness

Three experts suggest how we can smash these stigmas and change the way we all think about mental health around the world.

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Globally, more than 350 million people have depression, and 260 million are living with anxiety disorders. One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. It impacts everyone: even if you don’t have mental health challenges, you know someone who does. Yet many of us dealing with mental illness are met with silence, secrecy or shame.

A wall of stigma exists because of a lack of education, misguided perceptions, and stereotyping. Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental illness never seek help from a health professional. In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide, and 90% of those who kill themselves have a diagnosable, treatable mental disorder. But stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders.

Fresh from speaking on the topic at the One Young World conference in The Hague, Ananya Birla (musician and founder of MPower, a mental health initiative in India), Cassie Snelgar (designer, publisher and ambassador for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group), and Roxie Nafousi, (blogger and ambassador for the UK’s Mental Health Foundation) give tips on how we can smash these stigmas and change the way we all think about mental health around the world.


Remember: it doesn’t define you

Don’t label yourself or anyone else in light of their diagnosis. Do not brand someone a schizophrenic or depressed – they are a regular person who is dealing with an illness which does not reflect their value, worth or potential as a human being. When you paint everyone with the same brush, prejudice and discrimination can thrive. Respect individual’s needs and experiences.


Just be there – be open, patient, non-judgemental, and listen to people without expectation or agenda. It’s simple but so powerful. Don’t offer advice, don’t make presumptions, and don’t rush their recovery by telling them to ‘get over it’ or ‘think positively’ or ‘just go outside-you’ll feel so much better!’

Speak out (if you’re ready to)

If you find it empowering, look for opportunities to share your own story in a way that might inspire hope and resilience in others. Don’t feel pressured to share everything, but also don’t underestimate how often people will relate and be encouraged to open up and seek help themselves. Every conversation is another step forward in breaking down the walls of walls of ignorance and stigma in society.


Embrace social media as a tool for good

Social media can have a negative effect on our mental health, but it also has the potential to help eradicate stigma if used correctly.

Follow accounts which celebrate humour, diversity and honesty. Encourage your role models and favourite influencers to talk openly about their own mental health struggles, and support people who advocate a positive and accepting attitude towards mental health issues by sharing positive posts and educational content. (Some of my favourite Instagram accounts include Matilda Djerf and Jameela Jamil.)

Sharing mental health experiences can be a very powerful way to remove the fear of judgement which can often keep people from seeking the help they need

One size doesn’t fit all

There’s no one size fits all approach to dealing with it. Understand that every culture will have different ideas and beliefs around mental health. Through respecting and embracing different cultures and opinions we can develop a much better understanding of how best to connect with people on issues of mental health and break away the stigma that surrounds it.

In South Africa where the Zulu culture doesn’t even have a word for depression, SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) volunteers have had amazing success working with Sangomas (respected traditional healers) to educate them on how to offer the best advice and educate young people on the importance of mental health. Embracing cultures and respecting different opinions is a great way to educate people in a non-threatening way.

It’s cool to be kind

It’s so simple and so powerful. One single act of kindness can go a long way in setting a constructive tone around the acceptance of mental health in society. If you come across judgement or nastiness towards someone suffering from mental health issues, speak up. Remember it’s cooler to be kind and understanding than to engage in any form of emotional bullying. Encourage your friends to be compassionate by leading by example, because all the best people know it’s cool to be kind.


Be conscious of language

Watch the way you describe mental illness so that you don’t risk shaming or hurting people. Using inappropriate language when referring to mental health can really stick in someone’s mind and often prevents them opening up in the future. Avoid self-deprecating behaviour or language when you talk about yourself too. We so often use this as a way to seem humble or as a defensive mechanism but it affects our self-esteem on a subconscious level. As a community we need to approach mental illness with kindness and understanding and the way we use language is a great start.

Equality Between Physical and Mental Illness

When someone shares that they’ve been diagnosed with a physical illness like arthritis, no one tells you ‘a bit of positive thinking will make you feel better’ or ‘stop exaggerating’. Many people still don’t get that being diagnosed with a mental illness isn’t something that’s in their control just like having the flu, or food poisoning, or cancer. We need to change this perspective so that, just as people are generally not ashamed to see a doctor to help them take care of their bodies, we can work to a point where no one will feel ashamed to see a therapist to help them take care of their minds.

Show Compassion

Be open about your own struggles, it will help others to have the courage to address their own issues. One of the worst things about suffering with mental illness is the feeling that you are alone in it all and that no one would understand what you are going through. We should feel like a part of a collective of people who can all work together and help each other.

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