MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: BREAKING THE STIGMA

The phrase ‘mental health’ has had its share of fame over the years, yet it is still often viewed through the lens of ignorance, misinterpretation, and stigma, even in this modern era. Mental health is woven through our every experience, shaping our abilities, how we think, feel, learn, and interact with the world around us, hence its importance cannot be overemphasized. Despite this, and despite how common mental health issues are, the stigma and misconceptions surrounding them are overwhelming and must be corrected and exposed.

SOME MYTHS AND THEIR EXPLANATIONS.

People with mental health problems are “crazy.
Mental disorders are real medical illnesses, even though many people choose not to accept or acknowledge them as such. As a result, hurtful words such as “coo-coo,” “mad,” “insane,” and others are used to describe patients. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 4 people will be affected by some mental illness at some point in their lives. The use of such words, whether intended or unintended, adds to the stigma in the community and perpetuates the idea that mental illnesses are wild and uncontrollable, which in reality is associated with very few cases of mental disorders.

Mental illness is a sign of weakness and laziness and can be overcome with willpower. 
These conditions are diagnosable real medical issues caused by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and biological factors, and may involve brain chemistry. It is not a character flaw or a lack of willpower, and seeking help is a sign of strength and resilience.

People are born with mental illnesses.
While some mental disorders have a genetic component and can run in families, many factors contribute to the onset of mental illnesses, such as chronic physical illnesses or disabilities, adverse childhood experiences (e.g., emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction), and traumatic events.

People with mental health issues are violent or dangerous.
While some mental disorders, such as psychotic disorders and schizophrenia, have gained notoriety for their association with violence, these conditions can come with symptoms that may cause patients to act in unusual ways. However, individuals with mental illnesses are rarely dangerous and are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators, as mental health disorders account for only 4.3% of violence in a given community.

Mental health disorders are lifelong or cannot be treated.
While some mental disorders are chronic, similar to many physical illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and heart diseases, treatment can help people learn how to better manage their symptoms and have more control over the disorder. In many cases, with early treatment and the right interventions, patients can recover fully and have no further episodes of the illness.

THE STIGMA

For centuries, individuals suffering from mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and autism have been subjected to stigmatization across various cultures of which more than half of these patients fail to receive proper treatment. In ancient times, they were often branded, imprisoned, tortured, or even killed, as they were perceived as possessed beings or punished by divine forces. 

Even in modern times, seeking help for mental illness remains a taboo in certain communities and ethnic groups, challenging cultural norms or conflicting with deeply-rooted beliefs. The stigma surrounding mental disorders manifests through the perception of patients as unpredictable, irrational, or incapable individuals. It also breeds prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviours, which can be subtle or overt but invariably harmful.

The mass media plays a significant role in perpetuating this stigma through sensationalized reporting and portrayals, while even mental health professionals sometimes hold negative attitudes just like those of the general public. As a result, these individuals tend to internalize societal stigma, leading to self-stigma, which can severely impact their self-esteem and social lives. The fear of being stigmatized often leads them to avoid or delay seeking necessary treatment.

A report in 2016 on stigma stated that, there’s not country or society where people with mental illnesses have been accorded the same social value as those without. 

The detrimental effects of stigma extend beyond the patients themselves, affecting their family members, friends, caregivers, and support systems as well.

 SOME COMMON MENTAL HEALTH DISEASES

  1. Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, are characterized by excessive fear, worry, and avoidance behaviour. These disorders accounted for 301 million cases globally in 2019.
  1. Depression encompasses persistent sadness, loss of interest, feelings of worthlessness, and an increased risk of suicide. It was found to account for 280 million cases globally in 2019.
  1. Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels, with periods of elevated mood (mania) such as euphoria and impulsivity, alternating with periods of depression.
  1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is usually developed after a traumatic event such as abuse, accidents, or violence, with symptoms including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, avoidance, and hypervigilance It is prevalent in areas affected by high conflict.
  1. Schizophrenia is a chronic disorder characterized by impaired perception, delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking or behavior. It is thought to reduce life expectancy by 10-20 years and affects about 24 million people globally.
  1. Eating disorders are characterized by abnormal and disturbed eating habits, often involving severe concerns about body weight or shape. They include extreme food restrictions with an intense fear of gaining weight (Anorexia Nervosa), episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting and extreme exercise (Bulimia Nervosa).
  1. Disruptive Behavior Disorders (DBDs) are a group of ongoing patterns of uncooperative, defiant, and behavior violating authority figures, accounting for about 40 million cases globally.
  1. Neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disabilities, autism, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These disorders arise during the developmental period and have a massive impact on cognitive, motor, language, and social functions. For instance, ADHD is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention that has a direct negative impact on academic, occupational, and social functioning.

    According to the WHO, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic showed a global increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression by 25%, which Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, described as “just the tip of the iceberg.”

WHO IS AT RISK, AND WHO IS PROTECTED?

Some risk factors for mental health issues include adverse circumstances like poverty, violence, disability, inequality, and inaccessibility to healthcare services. Genetic factors, as well as an imbalance in neurotransmitters and abnormalities in brain structure, also increase the risk.

However, there are protective factors, such as a healthy lifestyle, strong relationships, psychological resilience, a sense of purpose or meaning, a strong community and social support, as well as access to mental health services and support. Additionally, positive coping strategies, such as problem-solving skills, stress management techniques, and mindfulness practices, can help individuals navigate challenging situations more effectively.
While these protective factors are beneficial, everyone is vulnerable to mental health problems, which can affect people regardless of age, education, income, or culture.

To conclude, mental health problems are known to significantly increase the risk of substance abuse, physical health issues, and premature death, accounting for about 8 million deaths each year. These individuals could be our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, or anyone else in our lives. It takes simple yet courageous acts, such as seeking help, to break the silence and combat this problem. It is neither selfish nor shameful to seek help, and while resources may be limited, there are various interventions available, such as psychotherapy, medication management, support groups, or community-based programs, for every individual in need. No one should suffer in silence when help is just a conversation away.
Let us fight this battle by extending a hand to those struggling through simple acts such as listening, showing empathy, and compassion. Because change begins with each one of us, with our words and actions.

Let us break the silence, challenge the stigma, and build a support system for ourselves and others.

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