The truth of the matter is that most people do not seek help for mental illness because of the stigmas that surround mental illness. If we are really honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge that we do not want to be shamed or seen as weak. Mental illness to some implies ‘less than normal’. For many of us, mental illness means that we have somehow caused our brains to stop functioning properly and we should, therefore, be ashamed of our deficits. Society tells us that only normal is acceptable. Yet, I’m still trying to figure out who decides the standards for normal?
Like any illness, mental illness runs along a continuum. Everyone experiences their symptoms and conditions in their own way. Yes, symptoms may be common across diagnoses, conditions, and disorders. But, if we were to experience individual narratives and experiences, we would find that no two individuals experience their illnesses the same way. This is the humanness within us. Stigmas, though, shame us into being quiet about our experiences. Then, society deepens our shame by reinforcing the fabled ‘superhero invulnerable complex’ which is thrusted upon both men and women, and sadly children as well, telling us that we should never embrace vulnerability. I think this is why Brène Brown’s work has been so important. We have been shamed into thinking that being vulnerable is wrong and makes us unworthy.
But…to be vulnerable is to be human
With all these negative messages surrounding us, reminding us that we are not enough and that we are not good enough, how can our mental health not be impacted? As I mentioned above, mental health runs along a continuum. This means that the severity of the symptoms can vary widely from person to person. More importantly, many people view mental health in the abstract form and only in the cases of severe mental illnesses, especially in the media. However, we forget that mental illness can be broken down into daily routines and habits. We can break down mental health into the messages we tell ourselves daily; the messages we receive from loved ones, including parents and partners; the messages we take into our minds from the music we listen to and the information we consume daily. To make this clearer, consider Instagram where people are constantly posting pictures of their ‘perfect lives’. Viewers see these images and constantly viewing these images over time can begin to erode the viewers’ self-worth and self-esteem. The lower our self-esteem and self-worth, the more we begin to feel that we are not enough and our flaws become overwhelming. Let’s be clear that these feelings do not stay isolated. No, they spread into other areas of our lives and the shame of these negative feelings begins to make us feel that this is now our reality and our truth. Now, we believe only what shame has shown us to be truth and we neglect all the positives about us and our lives. Kelly Flanagan, in his book, Loveable, breaks down how deeply rooted shame is within our lives and how much it eats away at our self-worth.
Stigmas gain power the more we choose to stay silent. Stigmas empower our shame and fuel our negative feelings. Small steps require bravery. Just sharing with a close friend what we are going through can change us and the way we view ourselves and our illnesses. Psychology Today reported in 2014 that 60% of people in the world do not receive care for mental health. Can you imagine how much of this statistic can be contributed to social stigmas and internal stigmas? Let’s not forget that we, ourselves, may also have stigmas regarding mental health which may evolve into self-loathing if there is even a hint of mental illness within us. Acceptance and compassion are two of the most important and beautiful gifts that we could offer to anyone, including ourselves. They have the power to reduce, possibly eliminate, shame.