The Silent War that is Killing us

Mental Health Stigma is Dangerously Unhealthy and Needs to Change

by Dr. Kate Dow, Psychologist, Author, Conscious Leadership and Personal Development Mentor

n light of Mental Health awareness month, I have to say I find it disappointing that mental health is still the hidden taboo that continues to be socially stigmatized with social and public health inequities in the year 2018. It is a silent war creating incredible suffering and killing people everyday.

The Real Impact

Want to know something astounding? All the wars between 50, 000BC and 2011 have been estimated to have killed 1.64 billion people. In 2015, the NIMH director reviewed statistics and found that 8 million people die each year due to mental illness, doubling our mortality risk factor.

Mental health issues are not a borderline issue. We all know someone or have gone through it ourselves. 43.5 million people in the US alone suffer from mental health conditions per year. That is 1 in 5 adults. The cost of this is huge on every level, for those suffering, for their family members, their friends their colleagues and workplaces.

According to the health tech survey, 41% of employees in the US have suffered from mental illness symptoms at work. But most people reported that they believe they cannot reveal their struggles to their bosses without fear of negative impact happening to their careers. This means people are not getting help and going it alone. It also suggests that people start self medicating to try and cope.

We all know someone or have gone through it ourselves.

The World Health Organization states that mental illness represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world, costing $2.5 trillion in 2010; with projections of $6 trillion by 2030 with two-thirds of these costs coming from disability and/or loss of work.

We can see the cost financially and logistically. Let’s look closer at the other costs.

The Power of Stigma

We see the impact. We know the importance. But we don’t know how to move past the stigma. The majority of people suffering with mental health issues do not receive any form of care. People choose to deny it and then end up killing themselves.

Why? Because we fear being judged.

And of course, ironically we all quietly judge ourselves, due to the cultural norm that silently says one should be embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed to struggle in this way, despite it being a foundational part of our well-being.

People choose to suffer in silence and don’t get help they need and deserve.

As a psychologist, of course, I see mental health as the bedrock of happiness, fulfillment and success. If you can’t think clearly, see clearly and be creative and connected in your life, you just will not experience a very meaningful, productive, loving life.

We all suffer emotionally and mentally at different times in our lives. It is just part of being a human being. The key is to face it and address it so you can make meaning from it and grow.

I know this because I have suffered with anxiety, depression and PTSD in my life. It was incredibly challenging to be my best for my clients as well as my children. I knew the only way out was through. I worked persistently in psychotherapy, coaching, and spiritual work to face and integrate my experiences so I could move forward. I am grateful that I was dedicated to getting better.

I know this because I suffered with anxiety, depression and PTSD in my life.

Although I believe there is nothing for me to be ashamed about, I did struggle at times feeling inadequate needing antidepressants to manage my mood and stress levels. It is such a powerful myth that says “if you were stronger you wouldn’t need it.” I knew it was untrue but I had to work to let it go of that fearful belief many times.

And I have worked with many clients who needed medication along with psychotherapy to improve their well-being and life condition, but they were unwilling due to the stigma.

The reality is as human beings we suffer. And when we can acknowledge our distress, that is what makes us a much stronger, more loving, conscious human being. I know I am far more conscious and kind now as a practitioner, mother, partner and human being as a result of it of going through those experiences.

Where Does Our Stigma Come From?

Mental Health is one of those areas that still creates fear for people rather than respect. What I mean is our respect for the mind, and for its capacity for growth and personal development. We all have essential need as human beings for mental and emotional health in order to relate with people and build loving happy relationships.

So why are we so afraid if it?

Over the centuries, misunderstanding, fear and discomfort of mental health problems led to horrific care and treatment of people with mental illness. This was also related to fear and avoidance of acknowledging the level physical, emotional and sexual abuse that was occurring during those times.

Denying the abuse, led to victimizing the victim and projecting responsibility on them as the problem, not the abusers. This has led to medical distancing and deprecation of mental health issues.

Yet, there have always been some thought leaders over the centuries who could face the mental health issue of humanity more directly. As a man of psychology, science and religious studies in the 1800’s, William James, recognized the immense importance of the mind and mental health. He perceived that as humans with our free will, we can decide to believe in a higher purpose and meaning that is essential for living an authentic happy life. He saw mental health issues as related to a loss of meaning and connection with ourselves and other people.

“(He) suggested, people are losing faith in a meaningful universe and as a result, there is a deep sense of malaise affecting modern society. Partly this is due to the rise of modern science and a decline of faith.” In other words, our modern societal norms cultivate this sense of disconnection and loss of purpose. I tend to agree.

This stigma of seeing mental health issues as a weakness, a character disorder and abnormal rather than a loss of real connection, meaning and purpose keeps it dangerous. This view blocks us from addressing the very things that would provide us more meaning, connection and happiness.

How can we turn this around?

Wellness Creates a New Perspective

The World Health organization does not consider health the absence of disease. In its broadest application, good health encompasses physical, emotional, social, financial, intellectual, and spiritual well-being—a positive state whereby individuals thrive, unburdened by disease and disability.

Wellness as a cultural concept has been around since the 70’s.

In the past twenty years it has been gaining traction in the corporate levels as the research shows businesses can get a good return on investment with strategic wellness programs. It may be that in this structure, mental health can rise to the status, importance and relevance as weight, smoking and productivity hold for employees.

Good health encompasses physical, emotional, social, financial, intellectual, and spiritual well-being.

In fact, corporate wellness is lately recognizing the significance of mental health more and more. As health costs continue to rise, they are finally noticing, people need support to address their mental health issues at work as well. Employers are encouraged to provide more resources and risk assessments and services to address the mental health issues that contribute to productivity loss, absenteeism, job abandonment, and higher turnover, as well as job burnout, onsite violence, and work place injury.

This is a good sign. It invites this bigger view of health and includes mental and emotional health.

A good example of this need is the alarming rate of suicide among doctors in medical school. A recent study, they acknowledged this and revealed the need for adjunctive therapies i.e., narrative therapy to support the medical community to move past the barriers of stigmas and get help for everyone, including doctors.

The fundamental need to change the way we view mental health as a part of our wellbeing is as necessary as watching your weight.

NAMI, National Alliance for Mental Illness, is one of the few organizations working hard to transform the stigma of mental illness with programs like CureStigma.

Another framework that supports improved emotional and mental health is area of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). This also has been researched as significant for well-being included as well as important for employees and their productivity levels. It helps people relate to their own emotions and read social cues, and communicate clearer. People with a high EQ can set better boundaries, take things less personally and have better self esteem. They are happier people at home and work.

In conclusion, the hope of both the culture of wellness and the work of emotional intelligence is our ability to reframe emotional and mental wellbeing as critical factors of healthy living and successful lives.

A person does not need to feel ashamed for having depression as they would not feel bad for having diabetes. They just can choose to face it and take action and seek help sooner and feel better faster.

As Williams James said, when we value our mental and emotional health we can stay more connected in ourselves, in our relationships and with a meaningful and purposeful life.

We can retire this stigma.

We can embrace wellness.

People can see that being responsible to your health on all levels makes you empowered to live a freer, happier life.