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Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD. – What’s stigma?

World Mental Health Day (October 10th) puts a spotlight on mental health. It’s a time for us to think about our own responsibilities as individuals and communities, when it comes to mental illness. This World Mental Health Day, we’ve asked Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD. (Clinical Psychologist and Medical Science Liaison for Orexo US, Inc.) to share her thoughts on stigma and why it’s more important than ever that we know what it is and how to deal with it.

What’s stigma?

Stigma is when someone views another person in a negative way because they think there’s something wrong with them. Stigma may occur for many reasons such as how someone looks, where they’re from, or how they behave or express themselves. Stigma can make an individual discriminate against another person by doing or saying something hurtful. Things that we say and do have the potential to be hurtful if we are not sensitive to others’ points of view. Some of this is because of negative stereotypes that play on people’s misunderstanding or even fear of mental illness.

Often people don’t realize that they’re behaving negatively towards someone else, as it’s usually due to their own biases. In other words, it’s because of the way they’ve been brought up, their experiences and the attitudes that they’ve adopted throughout their lives. Social media has an important part to play in this too, with content often directly reinforcing people’s attitudes based on their browsing history.

Are there different types of stigma?

Yes, there are lots of different types of stigma, from the way we view other people to how we see ourselves.

Social stigma is strongly influenced by fear when it comes to mental illnesses and sensationalist media stories can make people justify their own point of view. We’ve all heard stories on true crime television networks crediting an individuals’ heinous and criminogenic behaviours to “mental illness”, for example. Sadly, these stories reinforce people’s views of mental illness but fail to explore the reasons why someone might be behaving in a dangerous or unpredictable way.

Social stigma can happen anywhere, from a person’s workplace to inside their home. Sometimes workplaces can reinforce stigma, through their policies and internal culture, for example with recruitment biases or ‘jokes’ among members of staff. Stigma in domestic settings, such as between family members, is deeply wounding and can cause relationships to breakdown through rejection, isolation and blame.

School can be a difficult time for children and young people with mental illness and is linked with bullying. Children can feel very isolated and vulnerable, especially if they’re feeling intimidated and misunderstood. It’s so important for children to feel they have a trusted adult they can turn to for help.

Some people also experience self-stigma, which is when they internalize negative feelings about their mental illness. Feelings of shame are common when people experience being rejected or ridiculed for their mental illness. They can become socially isolated and have poorer treatment outcomes because they don’t fully engage with their treatment or stop it altogether.

Sometimes there’s stigma from healthcare professionals towards patients with mental illness, although the vast majority of healthcare professionals are highly trained and treat patients with dignity. These issues are becoming fewer now thanks to better understanding of mental illness and old fashioned ‘treatments’ that caused more harm than good being confined to the history books.

What’s your advice for people to deal with stigma?

Take that first step. Often the hardest thing is to accept that you need help, but the right treatment can help you to start feeling better. And help can be applied to many life experiences. For example, don’t be afraid to seek out help if you are going through a nasty break-up or experiencing a difficult time transitioning to college life. One might also find themselves extremely anxious or depressed due to the death of a loved one or after receiving a cancer diagnosis. The point is – mental health treatment is not a service that is solely reserved for individuals with a severe mental illness – it is for anyone who is experiencing a tough time and could use the support of a trained clinician.

Seek treatment for your mental illness. Tell the judgmental people of the world to stick their noses in someone else’s business. Don’t be afraid to go talk to someone, whether it be in-person or telehealth. Remember, mental health professionals are trained to help you feel comfortable by a creating a safe space, free of judgement. Start that journey towards feeling better – there might be set-backs along the way, but you can do it.

Give yourself a break. Stigma isn’t just about how other people treat us, it’s about how we treat ourselves, so try being kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up because of something you’ve said or done or how you’re feeling. Spend some time learning more about what’s going on with you and talk to someone you trust. Don’t cut yourself off from people, because things feel a lot harder without someone else to talk to.

Don’t define yourself by a label. Just because you have a diagnosis, that doesn’t mean it’s who you are. You’re not ‘bipolar’ for example, you’re ‘Jane’, or ‘Marc’, and you’re also living with bipolar. And don’t try and put yourself in a box. Everyone’s experience of mental illness is different, so just accept that you’re uniquely you and get to understand what that means for you. It can really help the people around you if you explain to them what your diagnosis means and when/ how they can support you.

Join a support group. While you may have some wonderful people in your life, it can really help to talk to people who are also on a journey with their mental health. You may find that you’re able to raise awareness of stigma in your community or through your group to help others who may be facing similar issues. The more we educate people about stigma, the more we’ll break down the fears and prejudices that cause it.

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"Give yourself a break
Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD.