A lot of people see mental health stigma as attacks on people with mental health problems, as people who sneer and judge us, or try and deny that mental health is a real issue – that it's all made up. However, over the years I've noticed it can be in the little things too, someone chiding us for being lazy or withdrawn, despite the fact they know we have depression and/or anxiety. It can be found in the way people will laugh and joke around about self-harm or suicide, some of them don't even realise the impact they're having because in their head they're not doing it maliciously. Mental health stigma can be found in the children and parents who are uninformed about the different mental health issues and how to deal with them.
I remember people in my school making jokes about self-harm or suicide, when talking about homework or a particularly troublesome exam or teacher. The fact they didn't understand that what they were doing would have an impact of people shows just how ingrained the stigma is. They don't see it as a big issue, and thus it's something that they can joke about. None of them knew that every night I'd go home weeping ashamed of my depression and anxiety, ashamed that I couldn't find their jokes funny when they poked fun at my weaknesses and fears.
As my knowledge about my own mental health issues developed, so too did my sensitivity to these comments. It wasn't even so much the content that bothered me, it was the way they made my depression into something meaningless, something to be laughed and joked about rather than helped.
It hurt even more when I would see them share posts or write tweets about not bullying, or raising awareness about suicide. I was too scared to confront them, and tell them that their jokes were contributing to those statistics about suicide and people going years without a diagnosis. They didn't realise what they were doing was wrong because it was just a joke to them – they weren't directly attacking anyone, at least not in their mind.
Stigma needs to be addressed. People need to be educated about mental health and its consequences. People should be taught to respect mental health issues, and that making jokes about it contributes to the harm and suffering of people who experience them. I was too scared to get help because I felt embarrassed. Everyone else found mental health issues funny, so was I just attention seeking or faking it? I realise now looking back that of course I wasn't. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, and it's horrible. My feelings are valid, and I'm no longer ashamed to say that yes I struggle with these issues. I've found myself confronting more people about their jokes even though it terrifies me, because when I was at my worst I needed someone to do that for me, to let me know that my feelings and struggles weren't a joke and that they could be helped. I didn't get that until a few years later – by then the impact is so long term that I often have days where I struggle to think of what life was like without depression.
That's why I'm so passionate about combating stigma. I'm doing it for all the people who have been in my situation or worse – by changing attitudes, we are saving lives. We are helping people get the treatment they need, we're helping them feel less alone, letting them know if something is wrong and what to do.
The truth is, we all need to take part in combating the stigma surrounding mental health. We need to discuss these issues with our friends and family, and we need to make them feel safe to talk to us, not belittle people who seem to get upset over minute things because we should respect that their feelings are valid.
I hope to live in a world where we no longer need mental health awareness days, because everyone is informed and educated about it. They know who to turn to and what to do, they know how to spot the warning signs, or how to tell when something is wrong. Until that day though I am going to be fighting the stigma as much as I can, and so should you.