Imagine this: One day you develop a sharp back pain. Like most you wait a bit to see if things get worse or improve. You might research for possible answers or ask family or friend advice.
With no change you see your doctor. Your friends and family check back with you, asking how they can help you to manage.
Now imagine this: One day, you wake up and realize that emotionally, you’ve been feeling different. You’re not sure what it is, but you and others notice you’re acting differently. You are not yourself.
Two months later, the feelings are getting worse, but you still haven’t asked for help. You think this can’t be serious, it’s all in your head, get over it. You reason that it’s your personality, age or stress. Things you try on your own don’t help. Or you suspect what it could be. So you keep it to yourself and just try to get by day to day, hoping it will change.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2015), about one in five people—more than six and a half million Canadians—experience a mental illness or substance use problem in their lifetime. Unfortunately, 60 per cent of people with a mental health problem or illness don’t ask for help. They feel ashamed, scared and stigmatized.
Stigma occurs when people experience negative attitudes or stereotypes because others have judged their behaviours and conclude them to be abnormally “different”. In fact, most people living with mental illness say that the stigma they experience is worse than the symptoms of their illness they feel.
Stigma is why we treat our mental health so differently from our physical health.
In 2010, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto reported on a study called “Negative Stereotypes Stick with You”. He concluded “even after a person leaves a situation where they faced negative stereo-types, the effects of coping with that situation remain. People are more likely to be aggressive after they’ve faced prejudice in a given situation. They are more likely to exhibit a lack of self-control. They have trouble making good, rational decisions. And they are more likely to over-indulge on unhealthy foods.”
A “Catch 22” for any person trying to make positive change…..the very behaviours people are trying to manage are the very behaviours that are being triggered by everyday people around them.
Everyday people seem to need to engage in ‘armchair diagnosis’ with physical conditions but more commonly, with mental conditions. Trained by the school of daytime TV medical shows and with limited knowledge, people feel free to make judgments about another’s health status on the basis of a few behaviours.
People seem to think they are qualified to practice psychiatry/psychology/counselling because they know and are comfortable with the use of diagnostic terms. This is without even understanding what those terms truly mean, or how they marginalize people, pathologize perfectly normal behaviour and offensively force people out of conversations.
The fact is, many people with mental illness walk around unnoticed and undetected. Someone with bipolar disorder can have a high-energy day and it’s not mania. It’s just a good mood, one like other people have and the result of things going well.
Sometimes people with depression have down days that aren’t about biochemistry, have everything to do with stuff going sideways and being a grump. People without mental illness do things that are weird. Children don’t talk to their parents; people get snappish, or sad. None of these things are evidence of mental illness. They’re evidence of being human, because this is what it is like to be alive.
People can, and do, recover from mental illness/difficulties. The earlier people get help, the better the outcome. So if you or someone you know appears to be having difficulty with their well-being, speak with a doctor (GP), medical health professional or a therapist/counsellor.
Pamela Ana MA & CCC, owns Wellness Matters Counselling and Psychotherapy.