Saturday, 12 October 2019

Seven Ways You Can Help Fight the Stigma of Mental Illness

By Hailey Parks

Millions of Americans battle mental illness each and every day. Even the people who don’t suffer directly can be affected indirectly by a loved one’s mental illness. However, due to the stigma that often surrounds mental health many people are reluctant to seek the help they desperately need. Despite the wide reach of mental illness, misunderstanding about mental health is widespread as well.

When we break a bone we go to the hospital. When we have a fever or any other physical illness we go to the doctor. Seeking this type of help is not looked down upon. Seeking support for one’s mental health, on the other hand, is often met with stigmatizing language and thinking. Individuals who fail to seek professional help can suffer immensely. Symptoms can get worse, problems can arise within families, friends, and co-workers, and mental illness can negatively impact one’s overall quality of life. Instead of staying quiet about these issues, it is critical to speak up and fight back against the stigma. When someone is struggling with their mental health, it should be normal and acceptable to go see a counselor.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma consists of misconceptions about a subject that causes a person to view the subject in a negative way. It can cause people to feel shame, judgment, and fear when their struggles are met with stigma. Navigating mental illness can be a confusing and painful endeavor, and stigma makes the entire experience worse. It creates immense challenges for those who are suffering, for example, it can stop a person from reaching out for help and obtaining what they need to feel better.

Stigma can manifest in many ways causing a person to feel rejected and judged by his or her loved ones. Often times, a person who is suffering and begins to share his or her emotions with a loved one who stigmatizes mental health is met with certain language that can feel shameful. Some examples of stigmatizing language include:

“It’s not that bad, you are overreacting.”

“Suck it up, other people have it worse.”

“You’re crazy, that’s just irrational thinking.”

Another way that stigma is sometimes portrayed is through the media. For example:

  • Portraying violence as a normal thing among people with mental illness
  • Making it seem as though suicide is caused by an isolated event such as divorce or job loss
  • Suggesting that people with mental illness must be isolated from society
  • Placing the focus on an individual with mental illness rather than a societal issue

When a person suffering becomes the victim of stigma, he or she may choose to suffer in silence rather than reach out for help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the delay between onset of symptoms and the time a person receives treatment is eleven years. In addition, 90% of people who die by suicide had previously shown symptoms of mental health. That is a staggering amount of time that people are suffering undiagnosed, and far too many needless lives taken. It’s time to make mental illness a priority.

Fighting the Stigma

Fighting against the stigma starts with each and every individual helping to spread awareness and provoke a shift in the way society views mental illness. Here are seven steps you can take to help fight the stigma and encourage those who are suffering to speak up.

1. Educate yourself
Learning about how mental illness affects the world, communities, families, and individuals is the first step to breaking the stigma. Do some research about mental health and read articles from people who have struggled with it. Learn about people close to you who have been affected by mental illness and gain a level of understanding and compassion for those people.

2. Change your thinking
Mental health is too often addressed after a crisis, such as a school shooting, occurs. Instead, start shifting your focus to preventative methods. With any chronic condition, you want to prevent it before it happens. Mental illness should be treated in the same way.

3. Challenge the myths
Challenge the misconceptions about mental health by taking action. See a therapist yourself, practice self-care, and begin normalizing mental health care among your family and your circle of friends.

4. Educate others
Once you have taken action to learn about mental illness and take care of your own mental health, you can begin to educate others. Share your experiences with them and share the resources that you have found. Use both social media and casual settings to normalize discussions around mental illness and mental health care.

5. Get involved
Reach out to your local organizations that support mental illness. See how you can get involved in your community.

6. Become an advocate
Once you get involved in your local community organizations, you can begin to advocate for policies that promote education, prevention, early intervention of mental health, and better access to mental health care.

7. Keep going
Spreading awareness, being involved, and advocating for your beliefs isn’t a one-time deal. Fighting the stigma of mental health is an on-going effort that will take time and patience. Even if you are defeated, keep going. Keep spreading awareness. Keep shedding light on mental illness.

Fighting the stigma of mental health is crucial to improve the well-being of those who suffer. Even if it doesn’t affect you directly, the issue is far-reaching and devastating. By taking small steps to fight the stigma, you can save lives by encouraging people to seek the help they need. You never know who you might help - and you never know how helping that person might change you.

About the Author

Hailey is a passionate writer who shares her experience with co-occurring depression and substance use disorder to help those who are suffering. She does outreach for PAX Memphis to advocate for better dual-diagnosis healthcare for all.


Thursday, 10 October 2019

World Mental Health Day 2019

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is suicide prevention.

According to WHO [World Health Organisation], more than 800,000 people die by suicide each year, making it the principal cause of death among people fifteen to twenty-nine years old. It is often believed that it is only adults who exhibit suicidal behaviors, but it should be made known that many children and young people engage in this kind of behavior as a result of violence, sexual abuse, bullying and cyberbullying.

— WFMH President Dr Alberto Trimboli

The WHO brings these statistics home with their campaign 40 seconds of action which reminds us that “Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide.” Read that again. What can we do to help?

To begin with we can follow the official WMHD account on Facebook (@WMHDAY1) and Twitter (@WMHDay). We can follow what people and organisations are doing around the world to mark the occasion on the following social media hashtags and use them ourselves to share relevant content.

  • #WMHD
  • #WorldMentalHealthDay
  • #40seconds

But we need to do more than that. Preventing suicide isn’t a job for professionals alone. It is down to each of us to foster an environment in our private and work lives in which people feel able to talk about what is going on for them and to ask for help without being judged.

It can be scary to reach out to someone who is having a hard time, whether we believe they might be feeling suicidal or not, but if it is scary imagine how much worse it is for the person in need. We can all make a difference and that difference can be literally life-saving. There are some great resources out there which I recommend if you’d like to know more and help contribute to a safer and more compassionate world. Courses I’ve taken myself include the following.


Workshop Training

The power of simply being there for someone cannot be overestimated. I recently attended an event at George Street Social in Newcastle, an alcohol-free bar and café run by the Road to Recovery Trust which offers hope and support to people in recovery from addiction problems. The event Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support presented the personal accounts of people directly affected by suicide, including Jonny Benjamin MBE. Many of us will recall the story of how a passing stranger stopped Jonny from taking his life in 2008:

The Stranger on the Bridge, which was made into a book and a documentary film, tells the story of how, having been recently diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, Jonny stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge and prepared to take his own life. That was until a stranger walking across the bridge talked Jonny down from the edge.

Jonny was immediately taken to hospital and didn’t see the stranger again, but, with the support of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, he launched the #FindMike campaign, to track the stranger down. The campaign reached over 300 million people worldwide and eventually led to Neil Laybourn — the man who saved Jonny’s life.

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life.

Another speaker was Matthew Smith from the If U Care Share Foundation who spoke movingly about his older brother Daniel who took his life at the age of nineteen and the impact Daniel’s death has had on him to this day. The devastating experience led Daniel’s family to found If U Care Share.

Our aim is to prevent anyone feeling the pain we felt as a family when we lost Daniel. We truly believe that talking can save lives.

— Shirley Smith, If U Care Share founder and Daniel’s mother

I know from personal experience how vital it can be that we feel able to ask for help if we need it, and be present for others. By doing so we contribute to a culture in which we are encouraged to share when we need to, and supported when we do. In the words of a quotation commonly attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

If you are concerned about your own situation or that of friends, family, or colleagues, our resources page lists a range of resources, crisis and support lines.


Saturday, 5 October 2019

Attending North Tyneside World Mental Health Day Event 2019

World Mental Health Day celebrates awareness for the global community in an empathetic way, with a unifying voice, helping those feel hopeful by empowering them to take action and to create lasting change.
— World Federation for Mental Health

I was delighted to attend this year’s North Tyneside World Mental Health Day event at Cullercoats Crescent Club in North Shields. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson was there too, representing LEAPS (Listening Ear & Positive Support) which offers practical and emotional support for those who are unwaged. I’d met a couple of the folk from LEAPS previously and was glad to see them again and meet a few more.

You can read Aimee’s post about the event including her top tips on public speaking here.

The first hour or so was devoted to networking, waiting for coffee cups to arrive, and buying tombola and raffle tickets. I wasn’t successful in the raffle but won with all but one of my tombola tickets. That’s four Christmas presents I won’t need to buy!

Aimee introduced me to Sophie from North Tyneside Carers Centre. They run a comprehensive programme of events and workshops for mental health carers. I told Sophie about our book and discussed the possibility of speaking sometime at North Tyneside Carers about my experience as Fran’s carer.

I was wearing an “Ask me about supporting a friend with mental illness” badge. The ink smudged as the day wore on; at one point it read “Ask me about supporting a friend with mentalness.” Aimee and I agreed that mentalness was a pretty good way of expressing it!

Before it smudged, the badge sparked a great conversation with Peter from First Contact Clinical which is a local organisation “[striving] to make a difference to the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged people and communities by enabling healthy behaviour change.”

Other organisations represented at the event included:

As a vegetarian I was delighted to find the buffet included a wide range of meat-free options, with everything clearly labelled. I noticed some people returning for seconds (and even thirds!) which was a fine testament to the catering. After lunch and a live music session from Keytones, the event itself got underway with the North Tyneside Disability Forum (NTDF) choir and a laughter workshop led by Helen Collins.

Helen was followed by a moving presentation by Helping Hands which is a partnership between Connexions North Tyneside and the Phoenix Detached Youth Project. These groups provide mental health and emotional support to young people aged twelve to twenty-five.

Lara from Supporting Stars read three moving poems by local writers, after which it was time for Aimee to give her talk. Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about. The applause Aimee received and the number of people who came to thank her afterwards says a lot about the impact someone speaking plainly and honestly can have. As I told her later, I was a very proud bestie!

Aimee’s talk brought the event to a close but people took the opportunity to hang around for more networking and goodbyes.

As I left, I was invited to choose one of the beautifully decorated Tyneside Rocks, many of which had been painted during the event. The idea is to hide the stones where others can find them. I will have fun finding a suitable place to hide the one I selected — if I can bear to let it go!


Wednesday, 2 October 2019

How to Spot a Scripted Relationship and What to Do about It

Fran and I were talking the other day about scripted conversations. You know the kind I mean; where you pretty much know what the other person is going to say and how you’ll respond. If pressed, you could probably write the whole thing out in advance.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Scripts help us navigate socially with people we don’t know very well or have no wish to engage deeply. Whether it’s our morning chat with that person we see at the bus stop, the barista in our favourite coffee shop, or water-cooler moments with colleagues, scripts reassure us we are on the same page.

It’s unhealthy, though, when our core friendships and relationships come to rely on scripted conversations and behaviours. That’s what I want to explore in this article. I will focus on essentially benign situations but toxicity and abuse can be scripted too.

Am I in a Scripted Relationship?

If you’re unsure, think ahead to the next time you’re going to meet this person. It might be face-to-face, a phone call, video call, instant messaging, or even by text (SMS) message — however you usually connect. Close your eyes and imagine how the meeting might play out. How did it go last time? The time before? If you can anticipate the topics you’ll discuss and who will say what — maybe even the words and phrases you’ll use — you’re in a scripted relationship.

How Did That Happen?

I don’t believe anyone sets out to live an overly scripted life so how does it happen? What’s the alternative? Unscripted is dynamic, risky, interesting, engaging, fun, exciting — and scary! It takes courage to be honest and open with someone. Putting our needs and emotions into words and allowing the other person to do the same invites challenge and confrontation. How much safer it is to simply not go there; to slip instead into familiar patterns of behaviour and dialogue.

Scripts mean we don’t have to think about what to say. We know what’s coming up and how to respond without ruffling feathers or risking upsetting the other person or exposing ourselves to criticism. There is safety in the familiar.

And let’s be honest, unscripted relationships can be exhausting! Sometimes we simply don’t have the energy to go off script and be open about stuff. In those circumstances, it’s understandable that we turn to a familiar script. One maybe that starts “Hi hunny, I’m home” at the end of a busy day. But if that script runs all the way through to “Goodnight” and picks up again next morning maybe there is cause for concern, especially if the same script plays night after night.

What’s the Problem?

Why should this be a cause for concern? If it’s the cashier at the grocery store or the woman you see at the bus stop you might not be missing out on much. Then again, you’ll never know unless you can set the script aside.

It’s different when it’s someone important to you; a friend, partner, colleague, or family member. Scripts are by definition limiting, predictable, and ultimately boring. Relationships which rely on them tend to become stale and utilitarian. As one friend expressed it to me, “I’ve had relationships like that. They are very... flat.”

The thing is, life does not stand still. We do not stand still. Our feelings, situations, needs, hopes, and fears change. The hallmark qualities of a scripted connection — stability and structure — can mask what is going on beneath the surface, until everything breaks down. And there is no script for that. To remain healthy our relationships must be flexible enough to adapt.

What Can I Do about It?

Ask yourself if you genuinely want to lose your reliance on scripted conversations and behaviours. This is not a trivial question. It takes courage to make changes, especially when other people are involved. If you want to proceed here are a few approaches you might find helpful.

Start with one of the scripts you rely on most. Play it over a few times in your head or even jot it down on paper. There’s no need to throw it away altogether; by definition it is something you are both familiar with. The idea is to adapt or alter it so the conversation is less regimented and closed. You might add in a non-confrontational question or share something uncontroversial you wouldn’t usually share. If it’s feasible suggest meeting somewhere new or at a different time of day. Or connect face-to-face instead of by phone, or vice versa.

One consequence of scripted conversations is that you stop listening. Why would you, when you know what’s coming up? You’ve heard it all before. So whatever else you do to mix things up, pay attention and listen as much as you speak.

Think about other people in your life where things are less scripted. Where and when do you meet? What do you talk about? Do you feel safer and more open with them than with the person in your scripted relationship? Why is that? See if there are things you can bring into the mix. Don’t expect too much to change all at once but persevere.

Have you ever had a scripted friendship or relationship? Were you happy with things as they were? If not, did you manage to change the nature of your connection with this person? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts.