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One in five Canadians will deal with a mental health challenge this year.
What do you think about that? Are you shocked? Are you surprised? Is it what you already thought?
Chances are that number is low. Not all mental health professionals need to report their statistics. Not all people that are dealing with mental health challenges go for help either. Why not?
Part of it, I think, is because of stigma. We’ve come a long way when it comes to stigma around mental health challenges, however, we’re not even close to where we should be.
What are some of the words you think of when you think of mental health?
They’re crazy, insane, can’t deal with life, weak, lazy, or maybe, a few fries short of a happy meal.
It’s okay, I’m not judging you. I’ve thought the same things before as well.
This past month I’ve spent quite a few days teaching a workshop called Mental Health First Aid, and in it we’ve been having some conversations around stigma. It’s been incredible to watch people walk in with assumptions around mental health, only to see them leave with a better understanding and a realization of how we use our words to further isolate people.
When we stigmatize people, we drive them further into the corners of our society. We are communicating to all people with mental health that they are not human beings and therefore should be cast off to an island to be with the “other crazies.”
Sound harsh? It’s because it is. People that suffer with mental health challenges are exactly that - people. First and foremost, they are a person worthy of love. The mental health that they experience does not define them, make them less of a person, or mean that they are not a valuable part of our society.
When we continue to stigmatize people, we not only drive them to the corners of the society, we also make it more difficult for people to get the help that they need when they need it. People are terrified to seek help when they start noticing that something is happening for them. Stigma makes that more difficult to reach out and ask someone for help.
Think of it this way, if you were to walk into your workplace and tell people, “I have to leave at 3:00 p.m. for a dentist appointment,” not a single person would bat an eye. Not only would they not be phased by this, they might contribute their thoughts around their last dentist appointment. Now imagine that you went into your workplace and said, “I have to leave at 3:00 p.m. for a therapy appointment.” Would their response change? In many places, you’ll get looks and you likely won’t hear someone tell you about their last counselling appointment.
That’s exactly what is wrong. There should be no reason for someone to be ashamed for going to see a counsellor/therapist anymore than someone going to see their dentist.
So what can we do about stigma?
We can be cognizant of our words. Notice the words that we use. Let me give you a personal example. I use the word, “insane,” an incredible amount. No, I’m not using it to describe a person, but it does increase stigma. As I think more and more about stigma, the more I notice that when I use a word like that, I’m creating a space around me that isn’t safe for all people. Watching what words we use in our speech can make a lasting impact.
We can also tell our stories…even if it’s not #BellLetsTalkDay. It’s awesome that we have one day that social media feeds are full of personal stories about how they have been impacted by mental health, and we don’t need a specific day to share our story with someone. Not all of us will be ready to share that story, and that’s okay too. And for those of us who are comfortable with sharing our struggles with mental health, why aren’t we talking about it more? We talk about our physical problems (Oh man….my back is sore today…), so what about our mental health challenges?