Student nurse Mervyn King discusses the stigma that often still surrounds mental health issues - and what we can do to change it. Published to mark World Mental Health Day.
As a student nurse at ARU, I’m learning a lot about mental health conditions. But perhaps more importantly, I am also learning that people with mental health problems are still people, with the same feelings and emotions as me.
Many of these people are fighting on two fronts, though, because there is a huge stigma associated with mental illness – and that stigma is one of the biggest barriers to recovery.
So why does this stigma exist, and who is stigmatizing mental health problems?
Tacking misconceptions about mental health
There are a number of strong misconceptions about mental health: for example that some illnesses such as substance abuse or eating disorders are self-inflicted; and that people with mental health problems are difficult to communicate with.
Recent studies from organisations such as Mind and Re-think have explored attitudes to individuals with a diagnosis, including schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. In both cases, a notable percentage of the public consider that people with mental health problems are unpredictable or dangerous; they would also be less likely to employ a person with a mental illness.
But it’s not just ‘the public’ at large who are wary of mental health issues. Further research, carried out by the charity Young Minds, found that stigma directed at adolescents with mental illness also comes from their family members, peers and teachers. Fifty percent of the young people surveyed reported experiencing stigmatization from family members in the form of unwarranted assumptions, for example that they were being ‘manipulative and attention seeking’.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization Europe describes mental health stigma as a major cause of discrimination and exclusion. It can affect people’s self-esteem, disturb close relationships and limit the ability to work, socialise and obtain help. It also limits our ability to prevent mental health illness in the first place, to promote mental wellbeing, and to establish effective care and treatment.
There is also self-stigma, where a person internalises what they perceive to be discrimination or stigmatization. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of shame and a lower engagement with services.
All of this matters because stigma affects outcomes. In its report, Attitudes to Mental Illness, published in 2015, the social movement Time to Change noted that stigma can result in inferior prioritisation of resources and quality of care.
Being the change
So if we care about this issue, how can we be the change?
As a student in the mental health community, I work tirelessly to raise my voice against stigma.
I do this by talking openly about mental health, and educating others where I can. By showing compassion, being honest about treatment, choosing empowerment over shame. I have learnt to be conscious of the language I use when talking about mental health; to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives.
As student nurses, we are actively encouraged to treat physical and mental illnesses equally. If we all begin to understand mental illness as a disease just like diabetes or cancer, there is a significant chance that there will be a change in attitudes and language.
Ultimately, a collective voice will go a long way towards fighting the stigma around mental health, and taking us all a step closer to a more inclusive society.
By Mervyn King
BSc (Hons) Mental Health Nursing student
Mervyn studies BSc (Hons) Mental Health Nursing. If you're interested in nursing, or other degree courses, book your place at an Open Day to find out more about life at ARU.
Published in October 2018 to mark World Mental Health Day.