by Bronagh Loughlin
From a young age I knew I was wired differently to other people – I worried about things that didn’t appear to be on their minds. When I finally realised that I struggled with a variety of mental health issues, the stigmatization began.
I remember the French oral exam during the Leaving Cert mocks. Outside the room I was sweating, shaking, my heart was beating so fast and my mind would not stop thinking about the possible outcomes over and over again. I was prepared for it but my anxiety got the better of me.
I went into the room and my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember much, just broken sentences in French. The examiner began putting pressure on me saying, “have you not prepared?” and “you are setting yourself up for failure by not preparing in advance”.
I couldn’t cope with the pressure and my body caved in, I began to tear up and struggled to breathe. I tried to slow myself down to gain my breath back. She kept saying “you have practically done this to yourself now”.
I was having a panic attack and all the woman did was roll her eyes. I walked out still trying to control the attack. In my head, part of me was saying it was my own fault, but part of me was really frustrated that she rolled her eyes at me having a panic attack.
I felt that if I had been physically unwell, she would have understood, taken me seriously, and tried to help. Instead, she lacked understanding, was reluctant to accept the mental health illness that took control of me and she stigmatized me by not seeing what was really going on.
This reaction is not rare. In this society, we care about physical health always and mental health only when you are not affecting others – you can call in sick to your job for tonsillitis but not for a bipolar episode.
You may be reading this and thinking that tonsillitis is an appropriate reason to call in sick and that a bipolar episode is not. If that is so, you have stigmatized mental health. Mental health can affect sufferers physically.
Take asthma for example, an asthma attack and a panic attack have very similar characteristics yet one is considered more serious than the other even though both involve a person struggling to breathe.
Both can also be triggered by stress. Depression can cause a person to have increased aches and pains, chronic fatigue, low libido, decreased appetite, insomnia, or oversleeping. It can also affect the immune system and has been linked to heart disease and increased risk for substance abuse.
One of the most unsettling and upsetting parts of mental illness is stigmatization – it can make a sufferer feel isolated and can make living with mental health issues a lot more difficult due to prejudice, judgement and a lack of acceptance.
It can be used to exclude and marginalise people and that is absolutely not okay. I cannot express how exhausted I am of feeling like the odd one out, feeling weird and not good enough.
All these feelings are brought on by the stigma placed upon us. It creates fear which causes people not to ask for help when they are struggling. Stigma causes a lack of support and prevents help from being offered.
It can stop people from getting what they want out of life such as a job that they are fully qualified for. It also can stop people from engaging in their own community for fear of being prejudiced once again. Stigma has huge social and economic impacts. Amnesty International Ireland conducted research into the experience of discrimination as reported by people with mental health problems.
Nearly everyone who participated in the study (95.4 per cent) reported some level of unfair treatment as a result of a mental health problem. More than 70 per cent of participants concealed their mental health problems from others.
Three in five stopped working. More than half stopped themselves from having a close relationship and more than 40 per cent stopped themselves engaging in education.
Stigma also has an impact economically as it costs the State financially. If people experience prejudice towards their mental health issues, they may feel ashamed and so not ask for help.
This delay in asking for help causes more distress and results in higher costs to the health service when people finally come forward to talk.
There are three reasons why we fear talking about our mental health, the first is that we are afraid people will lack understanding. The second is that people like to pretend mental illness does not exist because they are ashamed to admit that most people are affected.
The third is stigma, and that is where most of the problems lie. The truth is that most of us have to live our lives with mental illness. If you have not experienced it yet, I’m not asking you to pretend you understand.
We need to realise that stigma is bad, it leads us to keep our mouths shut. Mental health is not targeted at low lifes, weird people or the ones who do not fit in. Mental health illnesses hit all strata of society and we need to come to grips with that.
Instead of thinking that taking a day off because of your bipolar disorder is something to be ashamed of, be happy you are taking care of your wellbeing. Employers should be happy too that an employee is taking the time off to come back better the next day.
Stop making people feel like they are on on the outside, we all live on this earth together and we are all enough to be here.