February 10, 2022

How we can combat mental health stigma – by Dr Shakira

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression, anxiety and behavioural issues are the leading mental health conditions among teenagers. If you know someone who’s suffering from depression, they may not want to go about their daily tasks e.g. not eating, not sleeping, not speaking to anyone. Anxiety is having constant feelings of worry- those who have anxiety can also perspire (sweat) more than usual, be dizzy or even have a rapid (fast) heartbeat.

These are normal health conditions, but stigma and discrimination can make it harder for those struggling to reach out for help. If you’re experiencing a mental health condition, tell someone you trust about what you’re going through, try to maintain a routine, take medication, or see a healthcare provider.

Ignoring mental health symptoms can lead to the condition worsening, or even lead to suicidal thoughts and acts. Globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers 15-19 years old.

Stigma and discrimination- what are they?

Stigmas are negative attitudes and beliefs about people. They’re usually based on things we’re told which aren’t true e.g. “This person is cursed”, or “If you go near this person, you’ll also get sick”, or “This person must be chased away from here”. Stigma can affect the way other people treat us, as well as how we think about and treat ourselves.

Often, we may be afraid of having relationships with friends and relatives who’ve been diagnosed with mental health conditions. Discrimination is closely tied to social stigma e.g. gossiping, bullying, verbal and physical abuse, shaming, even using words like “you’re crazy/mad/weird” and treating people like they’re outcasts. Discrimination can lead to one feeling ashamed and even embarrassed which can turn into self-stigma, self-hate and self-harm.

How can we avoid stigma and discrimination?

  • If you hear any stereotypes or generalisations around mental health, read and understand more about them. Educate yourself and those around you on the truth, instead of repeating myths and misconceptions.
  • Treat those with mental health conditions as normal- there’s nothing abnormal about living with a health condition.
  • There’s more to a person than their mental health condition, so don’t label or judge- be encouraging and supportive instead.
  • Don’t make insensitive jokes.
  • Don’t share anyone’s mental health condition- it’s their choice if they’d like to share that information.
  • When you see others acting in a discriminatory way, call them out and step in by raising awareness. You can also report this to a trusted teacher, caregiver or parent.

How to handle stigma and discrimination

  • The best medicine would be to ignore and not pay any attention to negative remarks.
  • Don’t feel ashamed- your condition is like any other health condition.
  • Reach out to family, friends, and healthcare providers to speak about what you’re going through.
  • Report any peers who are discriminating against or bullying you to a trusted teacher, caregiver or parent.
  • Speak out, become an advocate, and build awareness in your school, family and community.

An insensitive word or joke may seem harmless, but it could set a patient back in their treatment or lead to self-harm and even suicide. It’s our responsibility to support our friends- even just by “being there” and understanding, we can help them with their struggles. It’s important that we don’t stigmatise or discriminate in any way, and that we stand up when we see this happening.

Let’s end stigma and discrimination against mental health conditions, together!

About the author: Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning public health practitioner, 2017 Woman of the Year in Health in South Africa and is an expert serving in both the World Health Organization and UN Women.

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