The Truth About Self Stigma
In Canada, stigma has been identified as the greatest barrier to recovery from mental health problems and it comes in many different shapes and sizes. In a nutshell, stigma as it relates to mental health is the negative attitudes, prejudice and/or discrimination individuals who are struggling are often faced with. People living with mental health problems are sometimes seen as weak and met with a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude. In the workplace those who require accommodations or time away from their jobs in order to get well can be seen as lazy, enduring thinly veiled eye rolls and whispers about how their health issue isn’t real, that they’re making it up or exaggerating it in order to get special treatment. A person can be ostracized from their peer group, family, friends and by society at large, made to feel “less than” because of a health problem – as if struggling with mental health to begin with isn’t challenging enough.
Because stigmatizing attitudes are so engrained in our culture these ideas can permeate our belief systems without us even realizing it. When a person internalizes the stigma they’ve experienced from others they may have thoughts like, What’s the matter with me? I just need to get it together, or This is ridiculous, I need to snap out of it! This is called self stigma and can mean a person keeps their struggle to themselves rather than accessing help that could drastically improve their life. Another example might be a thought such as, Other people have gone through much worse things than this and have gotten through it themselves, which indicates shame and embarrassment about reaching out for support, and the perception that doing so is a sign of weakness. Self stigma often causes a person to minimize their struggle in their own mind – I’m sure it’s nothing; I’ll probably feel better after [I’ve had a good night’s sleep / I finish that work project / I get that intimidating social event out of the way]. Even when symptoms persist or worsen over time, self stigma can hold a person back from even mentioning it to a trusted friend or family member.
This self-defeating mindset then creates a further barrier to recovery, as the journey to wellness takes a great deal of perseverance and hope. A sense of hopelessness can ultimately mean a person never reaches out for help at all, continuing to suffer in silence. With support from family, friends, co-workers and other connections within one’s community a person is able to draw on their optimism when the road to recovery gets tough and it’s hard to persist – but self stigma may well mean not even those closest to the individual is aware of their struggle, because they’ve felt too ashamed to share it. With feelings of shame and a lack of hope it’s impossible to fully engage in the process of working toward wellness, which usually means the outcome is far less than optimal. And there, self stigma results in a self fulfilling prophecy.
Mental health problems are just that: health problems. If you’re struggling, know that reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not a weakness. Talk to someone you trust about how you’ve been feeling and speak with a health care professional – like your family doctor, nurse practitioner or a GP at a walk-in/virtual clinic – to learn about treatment options that are available to you. If you have access to an Employee Assistance Program through your workplace, why not check in to what they offer? (If you’re not sure whether you have one, or you don’t know how to access it, connect with your organization’s Human Resource representative.) Community agencies like 2-1-1 and your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association can help, too.
Don’t suffer alone. Asking for help is the first step toward feeling like yourself again.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.