When someone is diagnosed with a mental health issue, they may find they are treated “differently” by their friends, colleagues and supervisors. The person may become hypervigilant, as they are on the lookout for any changes in other people’s behaviour towards them. It may cause them additional stress and make them disregard any kindness or empathy shown by their peers and colleagues. In a similar situation, the individual may start thinking that everyone is talking about their mental illness. Subsequently, this individual leaves the room without making any effort to clear their misconceptions.

Why do people feel that they are treated “differently”?

In the examples mentioned, the individual’s perception and interpretation of interactions with their colleagues or friends determine their feelings, as per the Two Factor theory of emotions.

Types of stigma

Social stigma is the attitude towards mental illnesses held by our peers, friends, and community. This attitude is formed from life experiences and the commonly held views on mental illnesses.

Internalized stigma is when the person with a mental illness diagnosis believes that they’re not “normal.”

Living with the stigma

In-office lunchrooms or coffee shops, we rarely mention our mental health issues, as we would about having a migraine or a headache. We are comfortable saying we’ve got a headache because we had a “bad” night. We may tend to minimize the number of “bad’ nights. 

Nowadays, it is prevalent to share views on healthy eating habits and our health problems. But, when someone greets us, we have a smile, despite having feelings of hopelessness. We will not talk about our sleepless nights or our struggles with substance usage.

Another reason for the stigma to continue is that mental health patients cannot carry on their everyday lives. The individual starts drinking to have some momentary pleasure; substance usage increases. Soon, this individual becomes homeless and starts living on the streets. 

In today’s world, we all have a rudimentary knowledge of the various mental health problems. We may have read news stories where individuals with a mental illness diagnosis have committed a horrific crime as they’re off their psychotropic medication or didn’t have an adequate follow-up.

 Giving up

 We often read about war veterans having flashbacks and nightmares and generally unable to lead a “normal” life. First responders report similar symptoms.

These are individuals who have saved lives, often risking their own lives. They are well respected in the community. Still, many of them struggle in silence with their mental health issues.

Challenging the stigma

Attitude change has three components: feelings, behaviour and opinions/cognitive. 

According to psychologist James Prochaska, the concept of raising awareness or decisional balance can be used to advocate attitude change. Public awareness on the importance of preventive mental health can lead to early identification of any behavioural changes in a loved one or a friend. Early identification means immediate treatment and, therefore, less deterioration in a person’s functioning.

Psychoeducation about the differences between a mental illness and the subsequent disability is needed. It will help in more understanding and acceptance of the homeless and the incarcerated. 

In this context, let us discuss the reasons for recommending individuals for anxiety management and anger management. The former is for improving the individual’s functioning, the latter for those who manage their anger. Anxiety or anger management classes are conducted for the “emotional regulation” of an individual. 

A person, when facing a stressful situation, has a fight-flight-freeze response. So, emotional regulation can be considered to include a range of emotions. Emotional dysregulation leads to high anxiety or acting out behaviours. So, we can have “emotional regulation” classes instead of “anxiety management” or “anger management.” 

The pandemic has created greater acceptance of mental health issues; anxiety and stress are the new norm. 

Online resources are available to get counselling quickly; more people will reach out for mental health services. So, the following facts will not be as significant:

  •  People with a mental illness are dangerous
  • Addiction is because of poor parenting
  • Mentally ill are bad employees
  • The strong can never have anxiety.

This wave of hope will create greater acceptance of mental health issues, thereby leading to quicker resolutions and building better communities.

Adapted from my article published in the Telegraph-Journal.

The picture is from Mind Matters A.S. Consulting; 


 Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.