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Reducing the stigma around mental health

Posted: 21st May 2024

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Why is it important?

Mental health, and in particular mental illness, has been incredibly stigmatised, with people who open up about struggling sometimes being seen as weak. This is particularly common amongst boys and men, where in some social circles vulnerability is seen as weakness and ‘unmasculine’. Yet, the reality is that nearly 1/3 of 16-24 year olds reported suffering with mental ill health in 2018 and this figure is only increasing rapidly. People who suffer with mental illness are seen as dangerous or to blame for their disorder, but this is simply false.

The fact is, stigma around mental health and illness is dangerous. External stigma leads to internalised shame, which in turn leads to people not reaching out for help when they need it. This causes people to suffer in silence, their condition worsening by the day. If society tells us that vulnerability is weak and discouraged, how are we expected to even admit to struggling, let alone ask for help? Also, if stigma about mental health causes a resistance to conversation about it, how are we expected to know that help is available; that we are not broken, weak or to blame for suffering, and are certainly not alone.

Destigmatising mental health creates an open conversation about mental health within social circles, ultimately leading to more people reaching out for mental health support. By reducing the stigma and creating an open conversation, we can begin to counteract the rapidly increasing mental illness and suicide rates among teens.

What can you be doing to destigmatise mental health?

In the world we live in, mental health terms are often used colloquially to describe everyday scenarios that are actually unrelated to the mental health condition. Little known, is how incredibly impactful and dangerous this is. I hear it around me every day, yet, using the terms in every day conversation undermines and minimalizes the severity of the conditions and contributes to the overall shame surrounding them. This is likely linked to ‘semantic satiation’, where there is the constant repetition of a word until all meaning is lost. This loss of true meaning aids the stigma and misconceptions about mental illness. The actual meaning gets diluted and associated with fleeting, everyday experiences; it normalises illness. Nobody uses terms of physical illness in everyday speech, like ‘that’s so pneumonia’ when someone coughs, or ‘that test was so stressful, it broke my leg’, so why would we use the equivalent terms for mental illness in the same circumstances? For example, if someone is neat and organised and someone says ‘that’s so OCD’, or ‘that test was so stressful, it made me want to kill myself’. Just as you wouldn’t label someone who is breathless as having heart disease, you shouldn’t label someone who is sad as depressed. Saying these things dilutes the fact that these are serious illnesses (or symptoms of them).

This can be extremely distressing to people who are suffering with the conditions and symptoms. If the terms are used for fleeting feelings, they become unusable in the true circumstances which decreases the chances of the person opening up about their experiences for fear of being told they are ‘overreacting’ and to ‘snap out of it’. These terms are always used with a negative emotion or connotation, which results in the same negative connotations becoming associated with the condition, creating a reluctance to getting diagnosed with these conditions when they are actually prevalent.

The truth is, you never know if the person you are talking to is silently suffering, and therefore you never know if the thing you are loosely saying to describe a temporary experience using a mental health term is going to stop the person you are talking to from seeking help. This is dangerous, and surely it’s not worth the risk just for the sake of an easy laugh or conversation starter.

Here are some examples of phrases that are often used loosely, but are in fact related to serious mental illnesses, and alongside them I have written a suggestion about something you can say instead, and chances are the alternative actually matches what you really mean better. By reducing the amount you use mental health terms colloquially, you are doing your part in reducing mental health stigma. You never know, you might just save a life. Yes, words can have that drastic of an effect.

‘that test really triggered me’ -> ‘I hated what was on that test’

‘English weather is so bipolar’ -> ‘English weather changes so often’

‘that’s so OCD’ -> ‘that’s really controlling/neat’

‘I’m actually going to kill myself’ -> ‘this makes me feel really stressed’

‘He’s so manic’ -> ‘he’s so energetic’

‘He is a psycho’ -> ‘he acts so unreasonably’

‘I’m going to have a mental breakdown’ -> ‘the stress feels too much for me to handle’

‘I’m so depressed about my exam score’ -> ‘I’m sad about my exam score’

‘she’s such a narcissist’ -> ‘she seems to only think of herself’

‘that lesson made me want to have a panic attack’ -> ‘that lesson felt really overwhelming’

‘that exam was traumatising/ gave me PTSD’ -> ‘I keep thinking about that terrible exam’

‘she looks anorexic’ -> ‘she looks very thin’

*Disclaimer: using these phrases colloquially is NOT the same as someone using them when opening up about struggling with a mental health condition. What seems like a joke might actually be a person’s attempt at reaching out for help. Using mental health language should always be taken seriously.

This article is an extract from the new Brampton College Mental Health and Wellbeing Guide. This is available to all students via Google Classroom.

By Sophie Lunzer, student

Categories: Blog Posts Student Blog