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Thursday, June 20, 2019
Nasen: The Enigma of a Stigma

Before I continue I want to make it clear, I am not trained in psychology, nor teaching, neither have I had much experience writing about this subject in particular.

I am someone who as a child and adult struggled with my emotions, mental health and understanding of how to deal with something that so many others find equally as puzzling.

Upon reflection, I now know (or at least think I know) what possibly could have been changed or offered to help me and others with this process. What I have concluded is it all really comes down to the general conversation, and not just the talking element, but the listening part as well.

I spoke to Dr Tony Bates, Professor of Psychology at the University College of Dublin, who said: “When young people are empowered and enabled to speak for themselves, people are almost always amazed at how wise they are, how reasonable they are and how practical they can be in terms of their mental health needs.”

Research from the Mental Health Foundation found that ten per cent of young people aged between six and 15 have a clinically diagnosable mental issue, but 70 per cent go undiagnosed. I can’t help but wonder if these statistics are partly a result of young people not being taken seriously when seeking help with these new and intense feelings.

Dr Bates added: “I think as a society we are all afraid of our own shadow - in the sense that we fear what is unknown, dark and uneasy within inner lives. When it comes to young people this is even more so the case.”

When you are feeling unwell you are encouraged to tell someone, which is the start of the process of receiving help and ideally getting better. If there wasn’t such a stigma tied to mental ill health and we were just as confident talking about how we are feeling mentally, then possibly a diagnosis and the required help could be achieved sooner before the condition worsened or was suppressed.

Speaking about the challenges faced in the journey to destigmatising mental ill health, Dr Bates stated: “One of the biggest obstacles is language. Our way of talking about mental-ill health is predominantly in terms of a medical diagnosis that implies there is something 'wrong' with that person.

“With young people mental-ill health is less about what's 'wrong' with them as it is about what happened to them or what's currently happening to them in their interactions with key people in their lives.”

So the question remains, how do we normalise mental health in day-to-day conversation? Especially when such a stigma has potentially created a culture where those with a mental issue are considered less able than another individual with a ‘healthy mind.’

Seeking a solution I turned to the pinnacle of ‘normal’ in modern day society - social media. The deeper I looked the more I noticed that even though there appears to be a definite ambition to destigmatise this subject and advocates of mental health are a plenty on digital platforms, the positive message was being lost in a fog of fear, a culture of confession and misunderstanding.

There is not so much a conversation going on about mental health rather than a narrative from multiple sources and ongoing coverage of the daily struggle, the hurt and possibly an unnecessary need to explain oneself.

But I wondered if my reaction to this was part of the wider problem. That maybe we are too quick to judge when another is simply expressing themselves in the way that is best for them individually. Then collectively it creates a hub of knowledge and experience that others can explore for comfort or peace of mind during their own journey.

The freedom to say what needs to be said, rather than what we believe should be said could be the ongoing key to normalising the conversation about mental health.

“Their 'symptoms' are their reaction to threats in their lives.” Dr Bates said, "They struggle with what they want to say and what they cannot say. Distress that is without words becomes enacted in symptoms and repeated behaviours.”

However I remain adamant that favouring a positive approach to mental illness, health and wellness education at an earlier age, whilst being completely open and honest is essential to the possibly improved ability to cope with issues in the future.

Through use of a game I co-created for young people called Book of Beasties: The Mental Wellness Card Game, we encourage and promote positive open conversation about mental health in a clear and non-intrusive manner.

We don’t focus on the negatives, we bring issues to life and shine a light on the fact that they are not something to be ashamed of and hidden away rather than something that can be helped, as long as we know they are there.

The normalisation of these issues makes them a part of everyday conversation, because in my opinion these are the first steps to learning over time how to potentially deal with such issues and symptoms of depression and anxiety for example.

The enigma is, what is it exactly that we are ashamed of? That some days it is a battle to get up and go? Or, that the courage to do exactly what you did yesterday has vanished meaning you’re unable do it today?

Everything at one point or another needs time to be OK, such as when the weather is cold and your car won’t start until you’ve given it some time and warmth, or a plant won’t grow until it is watered.

It is an everyday part of life, and so we can discuss it as such. For each issue that is being narrated and boldly shared, there is a possible solution, which is the part of the message we could be highlighting more of.

The young people I have worked with have been happy to speak openly about their emotions. This has in turn given me more confidence to speak out about mine, so encouraging others to do the same. This positivity has proved to be infectious. I agree with Dr Bates, young people are most certainly wise; so let them be wise, let them be positive and most importantly let them be happy.

Discussing how we can normalise the conversation about mental health amongst young people, Dr Bates concludes: “Listen to them. And to their families. Appreciate that their 'symptoms' always have a social or interpersonal context. No young person just wakes up depressed or anxious or suicidal.

“Give them the time, the safe space and the means to express themselves, to tell their story. Mental health is a story that can be told. Mental illness is a story that's never been told.”

Images from Pixabay.