Let’s not stigmatise mental health

The origins of stigma trace back to the ancient Greek term ‘stigmata,’ resonating with narratives of shame and discredit, labelling individuals and communities, and eliciting negative social reactions.
Last Updated 28 February 2024, 21:52 IST

As we navigate through a diverse landscape of human well-being, mental health emerges as a vital thread that extends beyond academics, influencing every aspect of our lives, from career growth and financial prosperity to overall life satisfaction.

Despite its profound impact, mental health remains concealed by stigma and a lack of awareness among people, leading to its exclusion from mainstream health efforts.

The social impact of conditions like psychosis, depression, substance use disorders, and various other conditions on those affected highlights the urgency of addressing mental health issues.

The origins of stigma trace back to the ancient Greek term ‘stigmata,’ resonating with narratives of shame and discredit, labelling individuals and communities, and eliciting negative social reactions.

Goffman’s seminal work, Stigma, reframes this narrative, asserting that societal responses are understood by whether people follow the norms. Fast forward to the present, and mental health stigma remains seeped in misconceptions resulting in a huge treatment gap.

The community’s perception that mental illness is due to possession by supernatural forces persists. This perpetuates outdated treatments and discriminatory attitudes, despite efforts to educate the public.

A range of unfounded beliefs continue to prevail in our society. Mental disorders are attributed to supernatural causes such as past karma, god’s punishment, possession by evil spirits or divine figures, fostering public desire for social distance, and negative attitudes towards mental health.

Rural areas often bear a heavier burden due to the belief that mental illness is untreatable, preferring unconventional healing methods like rituals to cleanse the spirits or making offerings to the gods, thereby highlighting a glaring lack of mental health literacy.

The public should be aware that mental illnesses have diverse causes, involving a complex interplay of biological, environmental, and lifestyle factors including genetic predisposition, traumatic experiences, and chemical imbalances in the brain.

In addition, stress, prolonged isolation, substance abuse, and a lack of social support have also been found to aggravate mental health issues.

Clarifying these misconceptions requires emphasising that mental health conditions are treatable and recovery is possible with appropriate care, unlike the myth that individuals facing mental health challenges possess the ability to just “snap out of it.”

Contrary to the myth that seeking therapy is a sign of weakness, it is in fact a display of strength and resilience. Effective therapies and treatments are often misunderstood, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach is used.

However, a trained mental health professional looks into individual experiences, environmental contexts, among numerous other factors, to curate a personalised approach to address the diverse mental health needs of those affected and their carers.

Shattering the myths surrounding mental health demands relentless commitment, open dialogues, and spreading awareness. NIMHANS’s unique initiatives attempt to address the barriers and myths through community engagement events at public libraries, blending coffee, books, and crucial conversations on mental health and suicide prevention.

Awareness was raised through Stories Against Stigma: A Walking Tour of NIMHANS where, contrary to the mass media depictions of dark, dingy asylum rooms, the public experienced serene courtyards with sunlight streaming through patient rooms, discussions on cutting-edge research, and information on ethical patient-focused treatment procedures.

Diverging from the public’s cinematic expectations that patients are restricted through force, they freely move around.

Hence, it is important to encourage the community to seek help, amplify mental health literacy through workshops, change work environments, and use social media to disseminate information.

One can explore mental health resources in public domains to enhance widespread mental health literacy or visit NIMHANS Arogya Jagruti Kendra to pick a few.

Further, there is an increasing need to empower people to share their mental health recovery testimonies to destigmatise mental health, address unique cultural challenges, and build mentally healthy societies.

One must embrace effective treatments, psychoeducation, and psychotherapy from trained mental health professionals, contributing to positive mental health.

Look in the right places; vital resources are readily available for your mental health journey. As we embark on this journey, let the echoes of our shared commitment resonate that mental well-being is a collective responsibility, and together, we shape a healthier tomorrow.

(AUTHORS: Meena K S is a professor and head, and Ananya Agrawal is a fellow, Dept of Mental Health Education, NIMHANS. This is the second of a DH-NIMHANS series on mental health)

(Published 28 February 2024, 21:52 IST)

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