According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 5 Indians suffers from depression in their lifetime. This means 200 million people have to deal with mental health problems in India, alone; and out of this 200 million people, only 10-12% seek help. But, why are we scared of sharing our mental illness? We know the answer to this; there exists a set of negative and unfair beliefs that society has about mental illnesses. This is known as stigma.
The stigma around mental health is something we all have. When The Live Love Laugh Foundation conducted a survey on how India perceives mental health, it turned out that out of the 87% of people who knew about mental health problems, 71% used terms associated with stigma. We are all unwitting participants in this phenomenon, so it becomes our responsibility to understand it.
There are two types of stigma; the ‘Social Stigma’ and the ‘Perceived Stigma’. The former is the prejudiced attitude of others around people with mental health issues because of the psychiatric label given to them. The latter is the individualized inequity a person suffers. Stigma, today, isn’t remotely as cruel as the way people with mental health problems were treated in the past days. People used to believe that mental illness was a mark of evil. That gave people in the Neolithic Times an excuse to chip a hole in the skull of the people, giving room to the evil spirit causing mental health problems to leave the body. Though the way people treat individuals with issues today doesn’t cause physical pain, it does cause a lot of mental trauma. Bullying, isolation, discrimination not only lead to low self-esteem but also a poor quality of life.
All of this happens because mental health issues are highly misunderstood. A person with such problems isn’t necessarily violent; eating disorders and substance abuse are not self-inflicted. Even the medical model contributes to this. Medicos tend to put a label on a person with mental health issues which associates them with undesirable attributes and perpetuates the view that they have to be dealt with caution. The entertainment industry continues to propagate the stereotypical image of problems like depression or schizophrenia. Moses (2010) found that stigma directed at adolescents with mental health problems came from not just peers, but also family members. Teenagers face distrust, unwarranted assumptions, avoidance, and pity from their families and social rejection, dislike, and underestimation from their peers.
People tend to idolize celebrities because they’re pretty or for their exceptional acting skills but have we ever appreciated the fact that Deepika Padukone came out about her depression or how Anne Hathaway was brave enough to publicly announce her struggle with anxiety? These celebrities, talking about mental health problems, directly targets people’s stigma about such problems, that people with mental issues are the same as everyone else and can live in peace with others. Apart from this, they give people suffering from issues they hope that they are more than the problems they’re going through.
We know there are a lot of helplines and websites, like Vandravela foundation or Sumaitri, that provide support to people with mental health problems without disclosing the identities of the people who approach them. If we have solutions for mental health problems then, we as a society should fight against the stigma around all these problems as well.
To say that awareness is the antithesis of stigma is only partially true. Today, people are more aware of what mental health is, but they often associate negative connotations with these diseases. When they think of schizophrenia, they still imagine the visceral image of a violent and unhinged individual. The best solution to this issue is positive awareness. We need to actively debunk and correct one’s misconceptions. We need to first start with a correct representation of people with mental health problems by the entertainment industry. One should start calling out to people who propagate such stigma, as we meet them. Organizations like The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) in America provides educational as well as supportive resources to the people concerned. It falls on us to utilize these resources and work towards making society a safer place for those who struggle with their mental health.