PHOTO: Genevieve Pizzale
Mental health has become a much larger conversation, but we’re still stigmatizing those who suffer by holding onto certain biases.
While our society has made great strides to understand mental illness, there’s still a lot of work to be done, beginning with tackling some of the misconceptions around the condition. Fardous Hosseiny, national director, research and policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), describes some of the ways in which we still stigmatize those affected by mental illness.
The best way to renounce these misconceptions is through education and compassion, and the first step is recognizing some of the common stigmas that, surprisingly, many of us still hold onto despite research to the contrary.
Mental health and mental illness are the same thing
“One of the more common misconceptions is that people often confuse mental health with mental illness,” says Hosseiny. “You can be mentally ill and have good mental health; or you can have low mental health and no mental illness.” Mental health and mental illness are often used interchangeably, but “you could have been diagnosed with depression but because you have access to a good psychologist, have a good support system and are in active recovery, you can have high mental health,” says Hosseiny. “By contrast, we all have tough days where we’re stressed out and didn’t get enough sleep, but even if we’re feeling a little anxious, we aren’t diagnosed with a mental illness.” The difference often comes down to how long your symptoms last and how severe they are, though checking in with your primary physician or a mental health professional is always a good idea if you’re worried your symptoms could be linked to mental illness.
You’ll be judged for your mental illness
A 2016 report issued by the Government of Canada entitled “Psychological
Health in the Workplace” shared that only “23 per cent of Canadian workers would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a psychological health issue.” The report outlines some ways that an employee’s mental health can be negatively impacted by the workplace, however if an employee does not feel comfortable sharing their mental health issues, for fear of how work would be affected, it can be very difficult to reap some of that support (if there has been any implemented in that workplace). While we’ve certainly come a long way in reducing the stigma of mental illness, with more and more workplaces implementing or accepting mental health or personal days, mental illnesses and mental health issues are still viewed as a hindrance or inconvenience. We’re still working towards accepting that taking time off for mental health reasons is often necessary and unavoidable.
That you can just “get over it”
Mental illness can be unreasonably seen as a weakness of character or will—as if it’s something that can be easily controlled. Even those who suffer from low-level anxiety can attest to this being frustrating to hear. “A lot of people are coping with psychological or physical pain, but because they don’t have proper access to services, they often continue to suffer and sometimes even need to resort to substances to numb that pain,” says Hosseiny. The inability to soothe anxieties and negative thoughts on their own can prevent sufferers from asking for help and can be debilitating and add to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Those not formally diagnosed with a mental illness can be affected by pain and suffering in different ways, too—whether through experiences of grief, trauma or extreme stress. It’s important to remember that mental health recovery isn’t easy, and it often requires outside help to manage. Not to mention support and compassion from the community.
Mental illness makes you violent
Another misconception, Hosseiny explains, is that “people with mental illnesses are violent, but usually people with mental illnesses, particularly in the homeless community, are victims of violence themselves.” He adds that the media often “perpetuates mass shootings as a connection to mental illness and that can be quite stigmatizing.” An article on the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) website states that there can be a connection between some mental illnesses and violence, however, the margin is much smaller than this misconception leads people to believe and only about 4 per cent of diagnosed mental illnesses contribute to violence in communities. Even then, there are many variables and factors involved, including being a victim of violence themselves.
There is no direct and proven connection between violence and mental health, and any assumption to the contrary is stigmatizing to those who live non-violent lives with mental illness every day.
You can never recover from mental illness
While it’s an ongoing, active recovery for most (which can include continued work with a psychologist and other support workers), Hosseiny says that, with the proper supports available (and hopefully some changes from the government making more services publicly funded, recovery is possible. While the Canadian mental health care system certainly has a long way to go to be able to handle the level of support our country needs, continued discussion and education about the issue will help ensure support for sufferers—and hopefully their issues will be met with the same acceptance and understanding that those with physical health issues experience.