“Mental illness only happens to certain kind of people.”
“People with mental illness are violent and unpredictable.”
“Mental illness is caused by a personal weakness.”
“Mental illness is incurable and lifelong.”
“Children do not experience mental health problems.”
These are the misconceptions that surround mental health in our society, despite mental health problems being common in Malaysia.
According to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey, the prevalence of mental health problems among adults in Malaysia showed an increasing trend, from 10.7% in 1996 to 29.2% in 2015.
People with mental illness face multiple challenges. Firstly, in managing the symptoms and difficulties associated with their condition, and secondly, in dealing with the consequences of the misconceptions mentioned.
Mental health stigma involves people holding negative stereotypes towards those with mental health problems. This, in turn, can result in discrimination where people with mental illness are treated differently, e.g. when looking for a job, housing or getting treatment.
Stigma and discrimination also affects a person’s self-esteem and may cause them to experience shame, embarrassment and hopelessness. All this put together often leads to reluctance in asking for help, as well as a delay in seeking treatment.
These days, we’re seeing more mental health awareness initiatives. For example, people are sharing useful information from the right sources; a number of people with mental illness are disclosing their challenges; there’s more participation in mental health awareness programmes; and concerned employers have taken efforts to improve work environments to promote positive well-being.
Despite these initiatives, stigma still exists. Why is that?
Social learning theory suggests that learning is achieved not only through direct experience, but also through observation. Mass media such as TV and social accounts have become a source for people to obtain information about behaviours, and may reinforce their beliefs on how to treat people with mental illness.
Mass media plays a big role in shaping people’s expectations on society and our way of life, which then reflect public attitudes towards certain issues.
Cinematic stereotypes and media images of mental illness often identify people with mental illness as homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; weak characters who need to be held accountable; or someone with a child-like perception of the world who should be marvelled at.
You may also have noticed that movies with mentally-ill characters tend to focus on the person with mental illness, rather than showing mental illness as a societal issue. These characters could be portrayed as being weak and helpless or disruptive, who deserve to be kept isolated from society.
Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they are portrayed as heroes.
The fact is, most people with mental health issues have no desire to hurt others. They can be successful people, who only lack effective coping skills or social interaction skills.
Stigmatisation of a vulnerable group of people can affect not just that population, but also society in general. Stigma can cause people to be prejudiced, fearful and mistrustful towards the vulnerable group. In extreme cases, they may even be violent towards this stigmatised group of people.
Stigma on those with mental health issues can be especially debilitating. Many will endure discrimination, and even self-stigmatise, where they internalise the negative stereotypes and perception of society. This will affect their sense of self-worth, self-esteem and their dignity, as well as reduce their quality of life.
The most serious impact is that they will not seek the help or treatment that they need, which will lead to more severe symptoms and affect their daily functioning, possibly resulting in more stigmatisation. This is a vicious cycle that must be stopped.
While there isn’t a simple solution to stopping the stigma, there are some ways to cope with it. These are some useful ways that can be applied by individuals who struggle with mental health issues:
• Focus on your positive aspects – you are not your illness.
• Don’t keep to yourself and isolate yourself – talk to friends and family, and join a support group.
• Use humour
• Talk about the stigma you have experienced or are experiencing – this can help you work through those emotions.
• Know that there will be people who are not OK with you, and that’s OK – don’t waste your energy on them and walk away.
• Be in the know – get information from the right sources.
• Take things you see or read with a pinch of salt – not all may appear as it is.
• Get treatment – don’t let fear stop you from getting the help you need.
On an individual level, we have to work harder to be more empathetic and kind to one another. Let’s support people with mental illness instead of judging them, because a healthy mind does not speak ill of others.
As former US First Lady Michelle Obama said: “At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.”