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
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
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
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.