The stigma of mental health problems: we need to break the silence


"We don't know what people will think of us; what they will think of her," those were the words spoken to me by the parents of a student I was working with a few months ago.

In one simple sentence, they defined what many people struggle with when making the very personal decision to consider therapy and medication for anxiety and depression.

It feels like we live in a world that has two opinions regarding treatment for mental health issues: people are either in favour of the idea or against.

According to The World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.

Treatments are available, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

The stigma surrounding mental health and medication is tragic. We live in a world that shames us for having the courage to ask for help; it is expected we should just move on and get over it.

A study carried out in 2014 by Psychological Medicine found that sstigma was ranked the fourth highest of 10 barriers to care. Aside from the stigma of using mental health services or being treated for mental illness, the participants also reported feelings of shame and embarrassment as reasons for not seeking care. Others were afraid to let anyone know they have a mental health issue or were concerned about confidentiality.

As a mental health professional for the past 17 years, it saddens me to watch people sink deeper into darkness because they are afraid to speak up. What so many people don't realize is that many of these "conditions" are not curable; we will co-exist with them for the rest of our lives. They will occupy space in our brain and compete for attention with everything else in our life. People should not be left to suffer alone in silence.

Overall, increased awareness is probably one of the most important things that can be done to counteract stereotypes, so why are we afraid to talk about something that impacts so many? Why are we measuring our worth against other people's opinions? We would never shame someone for seeking help for their blood pressure or diabetes, so why are we being judged for seeking treatment for our mental health? The more we can advocate for awareness, education, and support for screening and treatment options, the quicker we can get to the people who so desperately need help.