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KEEPING IT TOGETHER IN THE FACE OF STIGMA

People living with mental illness may experience stigma and discrimination from family, friends, colleagues and the community in general. Sometimes the stigmatization may even make them feel worse than they already feel from the mental illness itself. Honestly, it can be tough dealing with any form of mental illness, having to be socially isolated is...

stigma

People living with mental illness may experience stigma and discrimination from family, friends, colleagues and the community in general. Sometimes the stigmatization may even make them feel worse than they already feel from the mental illness itself. Honestly, it can be tough dealing with any form of mental illness, having to be socially isolated is on another level of pain. On one hand, people struggling with mental illness struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness.

It’s absolutely tough to live in a society where asking for help means potential ostracization, or coming from a cultural background in which seeking psychological help is deemed as weakness, or coming from a background that thinks mental illness is caused by the ‘devil’, or not even having the means to afford treatment for a mental illness.  Society has always viewed mental illness as a sign of weakness. hence, making people feel shame in having to ask for help. You’d hear statements like ‘Black people don’t get depressed, black don’t crack; don’t say you’re depressed; you can’t be; it’s not possible, you just need money; etc. These statements are ridiculous and may stop people from seeking the help they need.

According to Quentin Vennie, author of “Strong in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Addiction and Redemption Through Wellness,” one of the greatest stigmas affecting the Black community is the belief that having a mental health disorder constitutes weakness. His hope is to break barriers and end the stigma behind seeking help. This is exactly what Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) is actively working on. We are focused on removing the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in the Africa, and creating a comfortable environment for an open conversation about mental health issues.

Most people who live with mental illness have, at some point, been blamed for their condition. They’ve been called names. Their symptoms have been referred to as “a phase” or something they can control “if they only tried.” This is the power that stigma holds.

The impact of stigma is twofold. Public stigma is the reaction that the general population has to people with mental illness. Self-stigma is the prejudice which people with mental illness turn against themselves. Both public and self-stigma may be understood in terms of three components: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

Public stigma

Stereotype:  Negative belief about a group (e.g., dangerousness, incompetence, character weakness)
Prejudice:  Agreement with belief and/or negative emotional reaction (e.g., anger, fear)
Discrimination:  Behavior response to prejudice (e.g., avoidance, withhold employment and housing opportunities, withhold help)

Self-stigma

Stereotype:  Negative belief about the self (e.g., character weakness, incompetence)
Prejudice:  Agreement with belief, negative emotional reaction (e.g., low self-esteem, low self-efficacy)
Discrimination:  Behavior response to prejudice (e.g., fails to pursue work and housing opportunities) World Psychiatry journal v.1(1); 2002 Feb

Sometimes, you probably know someone who has a mental health problem and don’t even realize it. This is because many people with mental health problems are highly active and they are productive members of our communities. Despite the myth that people with a mental illness are more likely to be violent, research shows this is not the case. However, the media does not help. Nollywood portrays people with mental illnesses as either running naked biting people on roadsides or begging for bread and chasing people. It is no wonder people still fear mental illness.

Tips for keeping it together in the face of stigma

ACCEPTANCE

Before tackling a challenge, we must first accept that there is a challenge, so as a survivor we must learn to accept the fact that we are heroes for we have saved ourselves & not taken the easy way out. We must however accept our story and all the drama that comes with it be able to live, cos in accepting we find strength to live a better life.

HARNESS EVERY OPPORTUNITY

Living with a mental illness can place one under a spotlight, there’s usually so much attention placed on you especially if you’ve had an episode, well personally I see that as an opportunity to take charge and enjoy the spotlight rather than shy away. So lets say you are in such a position, one thing that can be done is do something you are really passionate about and get the attention of your supposed ‘audience’ on that thing, maybe its blogging you’re passionate about, you could share your journey on something that interests you on that blog or you enjoy cooking, you could open a YouTube channel and encourage people to subscribe, this way  attention given is turned to something great because people can understand that before your illness, you’re a human first. You can monetize your spotlight! However, harness this in the right way. Please, do not make a joke out of a cry for help. A reason some people don’t get the help they need is because some other people have cried wolf in the past.

FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE
At any point in time when you feel things are going out of hand, it is okay to curl back to your happy place, it could be poetry, books, movies, music, volunteering, whatever it is, just do what makes you happy. There’s nothing wrong in taking a vacation off social media or anything else that makes you feel uncomfortable

OPEN UP

Talking about how you feel can be refreshing, as far as it is the right ear that listens, feel free to open up especially to someone who has your interest at heart. Also, if you’re already getting treatment, don’t miss your therapy appointments.

REMINDER

The stigma attached to mental illness is not easy to bear but you must be constantly reminded that there is nothing to be ashamed of, it doesn’t reduce your worth, you don’t need anyone’s approval to live a happy life so don’t seek anyone’s approval. Finally remember that it is your story, your journey so you must own it, own it with every sense of pride & give other people a chance to see that they are not alone, don’t be scared to share your story.

HOW DO WE FIGHT STIGMA?

Talk Openly About Mental Health

“I fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD on Facebook. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it for me.” – Angela Christie Roach Taylor

Educate Yourself And Others

“I take every opportunity to educate people and share my personal story and struggles with mental illness. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I over-hear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, or anything regarding a similar subject, I always try to use that as a learning opportunity and gently intervene and kindly express how this makes me feel, and how we need to stop this because it only adds to the stigma.” – Sara Bean

Be Conscious Of Language

“I fight stigma by reminding people that their language matters. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives and in my experience, most people are willing to replace their usage of it with something else if I explain why their language is problematic.” – Helmi Henkin

Encourage Equality Between Physical And Mental Illness

“I find that when people understand the true facts of what a mental illness is, being a disease, they think twice about making comments. I also remind them that they wouldn’t make fun of someone with diabetes, heart disease or cancer.” – Megan Dotson

Show Compassion For Those With Mental Illness

“I offer free hugs to people living outdoors, and sit right there and talk with them about their lives. I do this in public, and model compassion for others. Since so many of our homeless population are also struggling with mental illness, the simple act of showing affection can make their day but also remind passersby of something so easily forgotten: the humanity of those who are suffering.” – Rachel Wagner

Choose Empowerment Over Shame

“I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. To me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.” – Val Fletcher

Be Honest About Treatment

“I fight stigma by saying that I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. Why can people say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor without fear of being judged, but this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health professionals?” – Ysabel Garcia

Let The Media Know When They’re Being Stigmatizing

“If I watch a program on TV that has any negative comments, story lines or characters with a mental illness, I write to the broadcasting company and to the program itself. If Facebook has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, then I write back and fill them in on my son’s journey with schizoaffective disorder.” – Kathy Smith

Don’t Harbor Self-Stigma

“I fight stigma by not having stigma for myself—not hiding from this world in shame, but being a productive member of society. I volunteer at church, have friends, and I’m a peer mentor and a mom. I take my treatment seriously. I’m purpose driven and want to show others they can live a meaningful life even while battling [mental illness].” – Jamie Brown (www.nami.org)

At Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, we are keeping the conversation going, by continuing to share stories and thus “normalizing” mental health issues, perhaps more and more individuals will be inspired to share their stories. We also hope for a stigma-free society. A society where the laws, media, and justice system make positive policies that help more people with mental health issues,; a society that violently fights stigma of any kind; a society that understands that mental illness is not anyone’s fault; a society that is kinder to people struggling with any form of mental illness.

-Maya Agugua

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