Internalised Stigma

close-up photo of Thought Catalog book
close-up photo of Thought Catalog book
Photo by: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

It is great to think that we live in a world that is, on the  whole, making a conscious effort to better educate itself as  a whole about mental health issues, and is making great  strides towards creating a stigma-free existence for those  who struggle with their mental health. But one of the most  important steps in creating this future is to make changes in  our own minds, with our own preconceptions.  

If you are lucky enough to not struggle with their mental  health, it would probably be easy to assume that the group  of people least likely to hold any mental health-related  stigma in their brains are actively struggling with their mental  health. 

You might presume that as someone who battles with their  mental illnesses, it would be impossible to have stigmatised  thoughts such as “you’re making it up”, “it’s all in your head”,  or “just try being more positive”. In an ideal world, you would  be right, but unfortunately, that is not always the case.

In the same way that a woman can have internalised  misogyny, or a minority ethnic individual may have  internalised racism, a person who suffers from mental health  issues can have internalised stigma. I know this because I  have battled with such thoughts from time to time. In the  name of full disclosure, I have noticed that these thoughts  tend to rear their ugly head when I am feeling I am at my  lowest point. 

I find thoughts of ‘just get over it’ creeping into my mind  when I read someone’s mental health story on social media.  I know that I don’t believe them and for that reason, they  can be incredibly distressing! I can berate myself internally  for hours afterwards, they can trigger shame spirals and  cause a deeper slip into negative thought patterns. 

I know that I know better than to think those things, but I am  not in control of those thoughts, I know in my heart that I do not believe those things and it is not something that I would  ever say out loud to someone who was venting to me, I  would never dream of commenting on anything of that nature  either. 

These kinds of thoughts are my own issue to deal with and  as such, it is my responsibility to work out where they come from, what triggers them, and how to deal with them when  they arise. That means that if you also suffer from these kinds of thoughts, it’s your responsibility to be accountable  for yourself. 

So, in the nature of Mental Health Awareness Week, let me  share with you the work that I have done to try and quell  these thoughts and the ways I have learned to deal with  them.  

Identifying the root of the issue is always the most important  step in changing the stigmatised thoughts we have about things. In my personal experience of these internalised  stigma thoughts, they stem from growing up in a society in  which talking about the struggles you are facing mentally  was nothing but attention-seeking. 

These people aren’t really suffering, they are simply looking  for attention from the people around them. When I was growing up, even though I had first and second-hand  experience of mental health issues, the topic was very much  taboo and seldom spoken about. 

Obviously, this explanation by itself is not enough to explain  the recurring of these stigmatised thoughts. But if we add to that a spoonful of jealousy, we start to see why these  thoughts arise when we feel at our lowest. By jealousy, I  mean a sense of resentment that someone else is able to talk about the struggles that they are facing in such an open  and seemingly effortless way. 

When we are struggling with finding the courage or  opportunity to discuss the things that are affecting us, it can  be difficult, painful, and frustrating to see others manage it  with such ease. Bring in the supportive comments that we  might see in response to their frankness, and it can make us  feel so painfully alone and isolated. It is not your fault that in  response to this, our brains try to protect us and the best  way they know how is to defend our actions by attacking  someone else’s actions.  

Once we have identified the place in our minds where these  thoughts come from, we can work on combating them. I’ll  be honest, my work in this area is in the baby steps phase  and is not a sophisticated plan of action, but it seems to be  working.  

Whenever I find myself reacting negatively to the image,  words, or video of someone bravely sharing their journey  through their mental health issues, or someone being  wonderfully open about their struggles in the hope that their  pain can help someone else, I make a conscious effort to  spread love and support on that person’s post. 

From simply commenting hearts to people who admit to also  struggling in the comments, to having full-blown  conversations and heart to hearts with creators and  commentators. I always end up having learned something  and hopefully having helped someone feel seen and valued.  

I would also like to say that these are behaviours and habits  that I am trying to implement into my daily life and the interactions I have on social media to try and make it a  better space for myself and for other people. So, if I have  said something nice to you, if we have had an open and  positive conversation on social media, please don’t think  that I only did so because I had a negative thought about  you or your struggle.  Finally, if we do one thing this Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s try to challenge our own thoughts, our own  stigmas, and our own biases. Let’s work on spreading more  positivity and kindness on social media and in real life. Let’s  try to create a society in which no one has to feel afraid of  being judged for the things their brain isn’t good at, and to  do that, we need to start by working on ourselves.

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