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UNSTICKING STIGMA - ANGELA BOULLE – Workplace Coach and Mental Health Warrior

What is a stigma?

Stigmas exist all around us, not only in the mental health space,

some other obvious ones being in areas such as gender and race,

for example. But what is a stigma, actually? Most dictionaries define

stigma as a “social mark of disgrace”. I would go a little further to

say that it is the negative view we have of a person, or group of

people, due to specific characteristics they may possess that we

perceive to be bad, undesirable, a disadvantage or indeed,

disgraceful. I use the word perceive as very often the views we

attach to a particular stigma are a result of our false beliefs, our

lack of knowledge or understanding, intentional misinformation or

just plain unfounded fear of something we are not familiar with.

Negative views become negative approaches when we interact with

people to whom we have attached a specific stigma. This often

results in us behaving in a harmful way through our words and

actions - even if our behaviour is as indirect as simply avoiding the

person. The thing with stigmas is that not only are they extremely

sticky and difficult to shake, they are also not a secret from those

they are attached to and our negative behaviour only serves to

affirm and entrench that stigma even deeper, both for them and for


So what ARE our perceptions around mental health that have

created these stigmas and what affect do they have?

The stigmas that exist around mental health are mostly due to our

false belief that all people with mental health conditions are

potentially unstable or unpredictable, incapable of functioning in

normal school or work environments or that they could, more

extremely, be a danger to us. There are the added misperceptions

that the person is weak, weird, unreliable, “broken” or that their

mental illness can’t be fixed, to name but a few. Of course, the

casual labelling we often use when referring to mentally ill people

such as crazy, psycho, insane, unhinged etc. only adds to the

negative picture.

The reality is that a wide spectrum of mental illnesses exist, each

with varying degrees of severity. A minority of these are indeed

serious and debilitating to the extent that those particular people

are very sadly not capable of normal day-to-day functions, requiring

very specific medical treatment and support for their illness. The

majority of people with mental illnesses with whom we interact on a

daily basis in our school and work environments, are dealing with

conditions such as ADHD, general anxiety disorder, depression,

OCD etc. which (like any illness) when correctly treated and well-

managed, allow them to live quite normal lives, with some days

possibly more challenging than others, depending on factors within

their environments. This is much the same as someone afflicted

with, for example, diabetes or high blood pressure and whose

illness is being managed and controlled through medication and/or

diet. They too can live normal lives and also experience days that

present more challenges than others due to elements in their

environment which are, at times, beyond their control.

As with all stigmas, and particularly in school environments, these

negative views can lead to ridiculing, dissing, negative labelling,

bullying and outright discrimination, all of which are of course

extremely hurtful, damaging and ultimately crippling for someone

struggling with a mental health condition. This can result in an

unwillingness to acknowledge their illness or seek the help needed

for fear of how people will respond. They may suspect that their

family or friends won’t understand what they are dealing with, may

downplay or deny the fact that they are ill or even worse, not

believe them. Are my friends going to think I’m weird or unstable?

Am I going to be bullied or laughed at? Am I going to disappoint my

parents? Are my teachers going to think I’m a failure? The end

result is that the person can feel isolated, misunderstood, unloved

and uncared for, filled with self-doubt and worse still, shame. Trying

to deal with the challenges of a mental illness within a stigma-filled

community can result in even more deterioration of a person’s

mental health, sometimes to hopeless and tragic extents.

How do we change this?

Well this depends on who you are in this story but we most

certainly ALL have a part to play in breaking the stigma surrounding

mental health.

Are you currently struggling with your own mental health

but are within a community where you don’t feel comfortable

to reach out?

Well here are some of the ways you could gain the help you need as

well as play a part in breaking the stigma.

 Your well-being is the number one priority above anything

else and the first crucial step is to be professionally diagnosed

and started on some form of treatment, whether it be

counseling or medication. This might feel very scary but your

condition may not be as bad or untreatable as you think,

(thanks to stigma!) but, like any other illness, it could get

worse if you don’t get help.

 If your immediate family or close friends are not an option

and, as unsupportive as you might think your wider

community may be, it is very important to find one person

you can confide in to assist you – a friend’s parent, a school

counselor or teacher that you trust, a counselor at your place

of worship, a GP or therapist who you could consult on your

own or one of the mental health associations who offer (often

free) counseling and support. There are contact details of

some of those on this website.

 Once you have done this and you have an understanding of

the extent of your condition, accepting it as a treatable

illness and acknowledging what you need to do to manage it

can go a long way to you owning your mental health. This will

enable you to speak more openly, honestly and confidently

about it in a way that is more matter-of-fact as opposed to

dropping it like a bomb, covering your ears and anticipating a

negative response from those around you.

 People will take your lead in the way you approach and speak

about your mental health. If you try to hide it or speak about

it in a way that makes you appear embarrassed or ashamed,

it could only serve to reinforce the stigma and people may

treat you in that same way. Try to own it for what it is and

don’t allow it to define who you are – by doing this you will

more than likely earn respect from those around you as well

as encourage others to do the same.

 Know and believe that you are not alone on your journey to

mental wellness and that there are many, many others who

have successfully managed to heal through correct treatment

and support. Draw inspiration and encouragement from them

to play your part in breaking the stigma.

 It can be very helpful to join a support group where you will

be able to share your thoughts, feelings, challenges and

indeed your successes with others who are in similar

circumstances. This can be quite intimidating for some at first

but remember that your shared experiences could very well

help someone else on their journey. Talking and sharing in

these safe spaces will give you the confidence to do the same

in wider circles.

Are you concerned about the mental health of someone in

your community right now or would simply like to play a part

in breaking the stigma?

First off, if we don’t happen to have a concern currently about our

own mental health, we shouldn’t assume that to forever be the

case. There are many of us who may unexpectedly find ourselves

facing a mental illness at some stage in our lives should we for

example, experience a once-off or series of traumatic events or live

through a prolonged period of stress (like a pressurised year of

studies) where we suddenly find our coping chemicals stretched

beyond capacity resulting in our own mental health challenge. This

could be temporary and easily resolved or could end up being a

much longer illness. Either way, as much as we may like to think

this may never happen to us, the reality is that it very much could

and we need to think about the kind of environment we would like

to find ourselves in if it did. How would your friends and family

react? Will you be surrounded by uninformed, closed, judgmental,

ridiculing or bullying type people who will either avoid contact with

you or, when they do interact with you, will leave you feeling

unworthy, pathetic and an outcast? Or will you be surrounded by

friends and family who understand what you’re going through and

who show concern, care and empathy? Will they respect your

journey and support you on it? I’m pretty sure you’d prefer the


So be that person for others, today.

 If you don’t understand the terms mental illness, mental

health, anxiety, depression etc. then get curious, ask

questions and read articles. Thanks to the growing number of

mental health advocates, there are tons of resources available

to inform and educate us.

 Express vulnerability to someone you think may be struggling

with their mental health by asking them to share their

experience with you (if they are comfortable to) so that YOU

CAN LEARN. Be honest and explain to them that you don’t

understand what they’re experiencing or how it’s impacting

them (if you don’t) but that you would like to so that you can

support them. You will be amazed at the power of this simple


 Be kind and authentic in your support - don’t say things you

don’t mean or can’t do. Show empathy and respect, not pity.

 You don’t need to have the answers to their struggle or find a

way to “fix” them. A kind, listening ear and non-judgmental

heart is the most important thing to offer.

 Ask what you can do that is within your means to help them

feel supported.

 If you have reason to be concerned for their physical safety,

make sure an appropriate adult is also aware of the situation.

 Challenge those around you when you hear them speak

negatively of someone with mental health issues or of mental

health in general. This doesn’t mean you have to start an

argument! Offer an alternate view or point them towards a

resource that could provide them with more insight. Most

importantly and at the very least, don’t add to the negative

noise and try to be the example of how you would like to be


 Start or join a support group at your school or elsewhere in

your community where people can come and ask questions

and share their experiences – not only those afflicted with a

mental illness but also for those supporting someone with a

mental illness or those just wanting to learn and understand.

As they say, ‘the struggle is real’ for anyone faced with a mental

illness. Much of this struggle is compounded by the stigma attached

to mental health. If we each contribute in our own way to unsticking

those labels and negative views piece by piece, surely we would

enable the people that we love and care for to reach out for the

help they need, to feel understood, accepted and supported on their

path to healing and possibly even get them there a little quicker?

Maybe then that struggle wouldn’t look and feel like such a

mountain after all.

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