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.