Mental Health Stigma: The Elephant in the Room
BY ALPHIOUS T. MUGARI
Understanding Mental Health Stigma.
Mental Health issues are fast gaining momentum in Zimbabwe and world over. While significant progress has been made, it is also crucial to acknowledge that deeply entrenched stigmas still prevail hindering the well-being and recovery of those affected by mental health challenges. This article aims to examine the intricate nature of mental health stigma, its consequences and the steps society must take to eradicate it.
Mental health stigma manifests in various ways and it negatively affects individuals across all walks of life. The stigma associated with mental health issues result in those suffering from mental health problems to avoid getting the help they need.
Imagine the pain of suffering in silence. For people suffering from mental health illness and those around them, the stigma they experience is worse than the illness itself and it makes it very hard for them to recover.
Mental health stigma is widespread at different levels of our daily lives from individual level, families, community groups, work and school settings. The daily experiences of a person suffering from mental health problems are unimaginable and it is high time to change this narrative in a positive manner.
Causes of Mental Health Stigma
For Zimbabwe and many African countries, traditional beliefs, values, religion, culture, economic factors and ignorance have resulted in the stigmatization and discrimination of mental health illness.
In most cases, stigma results from a lack of understanding of mental health illness due to ignorance and misinformation. This ignorance and misinformation is shared from person to person and among different groups of people through the process of socialization which can be better understood through Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.
Media can also play a part is perpetuating mental health stigma through portrayal of inaccurate stereotypes on mental illness and use of demeaning terms. In most cases people with mental illnesses are associated with violence and it consequently results in them being viewed as violent and unpredictable.
Seeking help for mental health issues is often associated with weakness thereby hindering health seeking behaviours in most African communities. Seeking help for mental health issues is associated with the rich yet mental health problems are prevalent in all communities and their effects are dreadful.
Effects of Mental Health Stigma
The consequences of mental health stigma are profound, impacting not only the individuals but also the wider community. Without doubt mental health stigma results in discrimination and marginalisation of people with mental health problems.
People suffering from mental health illness may internalise the stigma and prejudice associated with their condition and resulting in their self-esteem affected in a negative manner. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed. This will result in them resorting to self-harm behaviour that may include not seeking timely treatment and support, to withdraw from society, resorting to drug and substance abuse and even suicide.
According to UNICEF, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds in Zimbabwe. Dealing with the effects of stigmatization is so distressing and it exacerbates the mental illness. It is even harder than dealing with mental illness itself.
People with mental illness often miss out on work and are excluded from different social groups because of stigma. In some cases they are even bullied or they become victims of violence. The effects of mental health stigma can be summarised as follows:
•Increased psychiatric symptoms
•Difficulties with social relationships
•Reduced likelihood of staying with treatment
•More difficulties at work or school
•Reluctance to seek help or treatment
•Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers, or others
•Bullying, physical violence or harassment
•Risky sexual behaviour
•Social and occupational impairments
Stigma also has negative effects on an individual’s family and professionals working in mental healthcare settings. Instead of just addressing the mental health condition, they spend most effort dealing with the stigma associated with the condition.
Addressing Mental health Stigma
Everyone has a role to play in the fight against mental health stigma and supporting those suffering from mental illness.
Considering the broad effects of mental health stigma there is an urgent need to take action. Awareness campaigns at every level of society must be intensified to fight mental-health stigma and promote acceptance of people with mental health problems.
The media has a crucial role in providing people with proper information on mental health promotion and support. People with mental health problems must be given a chance to tell their stories of resilience and recovery. The general public and service providers must be informed that mental illness is common and it is not a sign of weakness.
People with mental problems need to share their experiences and seek professional help from professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors or rather talk to a trusted person.
On the other hand, access to mental healthcare services with less financial and logistical barriers must be improved for the benefit of the general populace.
There is also need for the government and its partners to increase funding for mental health programs. Amendment of related legislature such as the Mental Health Act of 1996 will also help to fight mental health stigma and promote mental wellbeing. People with mental health problems should be entitled to the same rights and opportunities as everybody else.
Traditional, religious and political leaders have a role to play towards the fight against mental health stigma. As community and opinion leaders, there is need to educate them on mental health issues and how to create a supportive environment for those suffering from mental illness.
Workplace, school and church programs on mental health issues need to be intensified in an attempt to fight mental health stigma. Learning and talking about mental illness eradicates mental health stigma and promote recovery for those suffering from mental illness.
Advocacy and research are also crucial in fighting mental health stigma. Boards like, Allied Health Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe (AHPCZ) and Zimbabwe Psychological Association (ZPA) must intensify partnerships with universities and the government to promote mental health related research and shift public perceptions.
As a nation, we need to be proactive and take strategic action that creates a stigma free nation where people freely talk about their mental health problems and get the support they must get. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and our national vision 2030, mental health must also be prioritised
In conclusion, mental health stigma remains a major obstacle in every society’s progress towards overall well-being. Through an understanding of the complex nature of stigma and its detrimental effects on individuals and communities, we can actively work towards challenging and dismantling these negative attitudes. Through increased education and improved access to mental healthcare services there is great potential for creating a future where mental health is treated just like physical health thereby closing the chapter of mental health stigma.
Alphious is an Intern Community Psychologist – AHPCZ (A/PSY0796)
0773 227 688