Wednesday is Bell's Let's talk day, a day when people are encouraged to talk about mental illness. Here are five reasons why this campaign is so important.
What is a mental illness?
We would never lump such diverse illnesses as Psoriasis, kidney disease, influenza and ALS into one ubiquitous 'physical health' category. Mental illness is no different. It is not a single entity. Schizophrenia, for example, is an illness that occurs when the organ of thinking -- the brain -- isn't working properly. It's a physical disease. Period. Depression, on the other hand, is more the result of a complex interaction between biological, psychological and situational factors. While there can be some overlap, the two 'illnesses' are not related.
In mental illness, we are constantly mixing apples and oranges. The causes are not the same and neither are the treatments. When we lump them together we create more confusion. And when there is lack of clarity, we tend to fill the gaps in knowledge with myths, superstitions, and mistaken attributions. That's when the quacks come out.
The first reason we need to talk is to help people better understand mental illness, in all its diverse forms. Greater knowledge leaves less room for ignorance to flourish.
What is stigma?
Stigma is an unnecessary burden placed on a person already struggling with life. Very few of us choose our physical health. More often than not, illnesses just happen. Some of us just get the short straw. For the most part, we feel for people who get gipped when it comes to physical health. They are rarely made to feel ashamed, or in some way guilty for what they're going through? Do we see mental illnesses the same way? Are those affected not made to feel in some way responsible?
Ask a depressed person what they would be prepared to do, or pay, in order to not feel the way they do and you will quickly understand how bad it is for them. Most don't deserve this any more than a person getting hit over the head with a baseball bat out of the blue.
The second reason we need to talk is to better understand each other so that blame and stigma no longer act like salt being rubbed into the mental illness wound.
What is the main source of stigma?
The main reason stigma develops is that in this complex interaction of bio-psycho-social factors that go into the creation of most psychological problems, all we tend to see are the social circumstances. We then assume that two people should react similarly to them. If two people at the office lose their fathers in the same week, it is entirely possible that one will continue to work as normal while the other is off for an extended medical leave. This is because they do not have the same brains, the same emotional reactions, the same understanding of death, the same type of relationship with Dad, etc. Since we can't see these things, we tend to assume the reactions ought to be identical.
The same can be said for phobias? Few mental illnesses are more debilitating. Some people drop out of school out of fear of public speaking. Others refuse promotions out of fear of flying. Some avoid doctors at all costs. In these cases, people's careers and health are completely controlled by their fears. The reality is that one person's mortifying fear is another's piece of cake. Ability to face fear is in the eyes of the phobic beholder.
Let's be honest, most of us have a list of strong fears. How many of us would be uncomfortable if we had to give a keynote speech as part of our duties? Or be trapped in an elevator for two hours? Or had to reconnect power lines on a hydro pylon? Yet tons of people are indeed comfortable doing such things.
The third reason we need to talk is so that we can stop assuming that something easy for us is also easy for everyone else. We wouldn't go up to a person in a wheelchair and say, "Hey, get up. Watch me. Look how easy it is."
How do labels increase stigma?
Have you ever noticed how people can be easily intimidated by what another person represents? We may be intimidated if we meet a lawyer, or a physician or a well-known person. Yet somehow when we get to know them, they turn out to be just like the rest of us. Some are humble, some are full of themselves, some are insecure, some can't be trusted, others might give their lives to help someone...the list is endless.
The same goes for those with mental illnesses. Just like any group, you will find the gamut of personalities and styles. There may be some people who exaggerate their conditions but plenty of others who suffer in silence. No single group label applies to all its members. Segregation, isolation, and groupthink are behind most of our great conflicts, be they religiously, linguistically or ethnically based. This segregationist mentality also creates fear and mistrust of the mentally ill.
The fourth reason we should talk is to help us better see the individuals behind the labels.
Research has shown that the best way to overcome stigma is to increase contact with individuals suffering from mental illnesses. Educational campaigns are nice but they remain theoretical. Broad generalities do not provide a direct connection to the individual. This is why the Let's Talk campaign is so refreshing. The goal is simple: let's share experiences. When we do so, we quickly see that people are people. Most of us go through the same emotions and experiences. Sometimes they can be extreme but they are nevertheless the same feelings we all experience.
The fifth reason we need to talk is so that we can learn we are all just people after all...each of us imperfect in our own way, but a person just the same.
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