Stigma and mental health

BY: Kit Nemenzo Balane

What is so shameful about having a psychological problem?


Let us face it. Compared to having a heart disease or cancer, to have a major psychological trouble seems to be more debilitating both personally and socially. As far as I am concerned, society appears to be more accepting to those who are suffering from illnesses with apparently biological origin than those which are “mental” in nature.

If a survey is conducted today, I would bet that majority of respondents would say that it is easier to visit a regular doctor than a psychiatrist or psychologist. And yes it is true. We necessarily delay consulting a mental health professional for shame and fears to be ostracized. Why is this?

After some reflection, I have come to realize that our views and behaviors toward mental health problems are affected by our attributions and stereotypes. You see, to have a biological disease like diabetes or some kind of infection can be ascribed to viruses, germs, or some cells gone awry. However, to have an emotional or psychological problem connotes an inability of the person to manage, control, and carry well the difficulty.

In other words, we tend to see people with mental health issues as basically people who also have character flaws. We are inclined to view them as weak, unable, unpredictable, and essentially deficient in their ability to think and act just like the rest of us. We look at them as lacking discipline and rigor to adjust and adapt to their challenges. They are not like us “normals.” They are idiosyncratically different and we label them thoughtlessly and yes, they are stigmatized.

Most people with psychiatric and psychological problems report that how others judge them is one of their greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. It is not so much about their illness, it is how others view and react to them even after they have become well. Consequently, this leads to fear, rejection, and a low self-esteem that increase the likelihood of relapse.

But, hear me. All these talks about character flaw are unfounded. It has long been debunked. Mental illnesses, just like other diseases, have now been proven to be partly attributed to genes and biological makeup. It is not any different with, say, the development of diabetes which is not just a mere biological imbalance but also exacerbated by unhealthy lifestyle.

Depression, anxiety and panic disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, and other major psychological disorders do not necessarily reflect WHO the person is but rather they are considered as afflictions that can be effectively remedied by medicines and psychotherapy. That is why instead of stating, “He is depressed,” it is now changed to, “He has depression.” The person is not the depression. It is just a temporary state.

Although individual personality traits naturally predispose some to be problematic, these traits do not develop naturally from our genetic makeup alone. We all know that our childhood upbringing and our immediate environment has a big say in what we are at present. The point is, it’s not all our fault and our essence is not tarnished if we “close our minds.” To have a mental health predicament does not make one abnormal.  No, not abnormal but uniquely different. After all, “normalcy” is relative.

From this knowledge, we hope that those of us who are challenged with a psychiatric and psychological problem will not anymore needlessly suffer from the stigmatizing effect of labeling. People, we owe it to them!

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