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Destigmatising Mental Illness

By Shavonne N Lightfoot

THE stigma of mental illness is callous and debilitating for those who live with a psychological disorder. Society’s disregard for these people is often reflected in the use of pejorative names such as crazy, loony, mad and nuts. Stereotypes also reveal peoples’ misconceptions and discomfort related to mental illness, and sometimes contempt for this marginalised group.

Faulty perceptions inspire assertions that those who live with an illness are weak, lazy, dangerous, aggressive, stupid and are dehumanising and create a divide among the populace. Additionally, negative beliefs discourage people from seeking treatment, adversely affecting their functioning.

Our moral obligation is to reduce shame and stigma by practicing unconditional positive regard. To do this, we must terminate use of derogatory remarks, debunk myths, and extend empathy and respect.

People are either amazed or amused by my proclamations to make the word “crazy” obsolete in relation to peoples’ description of mental illness. My clients and I often discuss how that “C word” has created so much emotional upheaval that it is counterproductive in rehabilitating emotional healing and only adds stress to people who are already working hard to manage the symptoms of their illness.

Family members, particularly young children, are also caught in the shame spiral since they are often taunted because a parent may have a mental illness. Often derogatory names coupled with mistaken beliefs suggest mental illness is the result of a character defect or personality traits. An important tenet in destigmatising mental illness is to understand that it has nothing to do with personality, character, intellect or integrity.

The physiological cause of these illnesses means that no one can be precluded and while some do have a greater biological vulnerability because of their genetics; no one is immune.

Destigmatising mental illness not only restores dignity, but also increases the likelihood that people will seek treatment. Shame is a very powerful and crippling emotion that says these individuals are defective, unworthy of acceptance and feelings of belongingness.

This may then result in alienation from an invalidating environment and refusal in seeking treatment, though constructive, treatment has been associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment. People are more inclined to visit their family medicine physician or dentist than a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. Also, relatives who threaten hospitalisation of family members without justification communicate that treatment facilities and admissions are punitive and reinforce negative attitudes about intervention.

This discourages those needing management in consenting to treatment. Delays in treatment could mean impairment in overall functioning at work, school and home. Every citizen has a right to feel empowered and make contributions to their environment. Reducing shame and stigma helps to normalise mental health screenings, compliance with treatment recommendations and restoring individuals to their optimal functioning.

Aborting the use of derogatory terms promotes self-respect and encourages people to seek treatment; practicing empathy further extinguishes unfair beliefs relating to psychological disorders. Empathy simply put, is to understand another individual from their point of view. For this to happen, one must envision what it would be like to live another’s experience. How would you want to be treated? Would you want the same understanding and compassion someone who has cancer or hypertension receives?

As a clinical psychologist, I have an ethical obligation to advocate on behalf of those I treat, as a good citizen I have a moral obligation to show respect, sensitivity and compassion to all people. As an individual, who has no immunity against mental illness, it is my hope that I would not suffer any stigma if I was ever diagnosed with a psychological disorder. If we are to destigmatise mental illness, let us all work to be good citizens and cognizant that we all desire “unconditional positive regard”.

• Shavonne N Lightfoot is a licenced clinical psychologist in the Bahamas and a nationally certified psychologist in the United States. Questions can be e-mailed to youcantakeflight@gmail.com.

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