Is There Still Stigma Around Mental Health?

By: Ben McEachen

Valerie Ling knows stigma continues to be attached to mental health conditions.

Valerie is a clinical psychologist and founder of Centre for Effective Living.

She says that negative attitudes remain, despite improvements across the past few decades with how Australians talk about and respond to mental health.

Whether at school, work, around the dinner table or at your local church, great strides have been made in care, concern and support for someone suffering mental health challenges.

Valerie says that while we’ve seen improvements, stigma still exists in certain cultural contexts.

“I think we have got a lot better, a lot more progressive in our understanding of mental illness,” Valerie said.

“But there are certain cultural contexts that still have stigma. [For example] we still encounter it in the church.”

The flaw of character

Like placing a stain or blemish upon someone, stigma is felt by some of Valerie’s clients. Many are Christians, experiencing stigma within their church community.

“In our practice, half of our clients are Christians,” Valerie said. “We encounter stigma and [negative] attitudes to mental health and mental illness quite a lot.

“For example, Christian culture tends to see mental illness as a character issue.

“We still have young people feeling really ashamed or guilty that they have anxiety or that they worry excessively. In the ‘old days’, we used to say: ‘Christians, be careful that we don’t say it’s through a lack of faith, Bible reading or prayer.’

“Our latest issue we are dealing in our practice is that people feel they are weak.  That there is some sort of defective formation in their character and that is why they experience mental illness.”

Mental health is about health

Valerie emphasised that mental health issues are health issues. Predominantly, mental health disorders have a physiological or biological root.

Such clarity around causes can still be muddied or denied, though.

Valerie reminds us that mental health disorders have a physiological or biological root.

Valerie pointed out that our use of certain communication tools can further contribute to the ongoing stigma issue.

For example, social media platforms can be detrimental to mental health because they are largely unregulated and unfiltered. Anybody can voice any opinion, including incorrect, insulting or judgmental ones.

“[They] can put us back in our understanding of what people are going through and perpetuate myths and shame.”

Ask, don’t tell

To fight against mental health stigma, Valerie recommended getting educated at Sane Australia’s StigmaWatch.

Mental Health Australia’s Embrace is a multicultural resource for relevant, applied information about wellbeing. Valerie also championed the value of asking, not telling.

Before we presume what someone might be going through and why, we should ask them for their “lived experience”.

Valerie said listening to someone share about their mental health battle is a helpful guide to how we might help them.

Before we presume what someone might be going through and why, we should ask them for their “lived experience”.

What are the ways we can support someone else? What do they need from us, to journey with them and encourage and befriend them?

A good place to start is asking about the best words and language to use.

“Different people when they have had lived experience with mental illness, there is meaning attached to words,” Valerie said. “So, how can we talk about it in such a way that respects your experience and where you are at in your recovery?”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Canva Pro