I wrote this original blog exploring Self-stigma and what it meant to me back in 2017 – I was at University and things were very different in my life to how they are now. Regardless, the issue around self-stigma is one that is still very pertinent to me and one that I explore in my personal and professional life almost daily.
In my current job, I hold workshops with young people, and one of the exercises we do is in regards to stigma. I ask the young people to write down words or phrases that they find stigmatising, with the common culprits being ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘attention-seeker’, ‘weak’, and then I ask them to stick those phrases onto me while telling me that I am crazy, or an attention-seeker etc. This exercise causes them to confront the power and real meaning behind these words, and often the young people find it a powerful but challenging exercise. At the end of the exercise, I ask people if they would say any of these stigmatising words to someone else in regards to their mental health – often there is a unanimous no. Then, I ask if they would say these things to themselves in regards to their mental health and there is a resounding, unanimous yes. This is self-stigma.
In my view, stigma is something that has been conditioned into us, and the only way to dissipate it is to actively go against it. If your first thought it something stigmatising, actively question yourself as to why, and change your thought process. It is through this active deconditioning that we can rid self-stigma. Self-stigma is also actively combated by being kind to yourself as you would be to others. 99% of people wouldn’t be stigmatizing to someone else but they would be to themselves – why is this? I don’t have a cut and dry answer, but I think it’s something to do with our seeming inability to be kind to ourselves and to cut ourselves some slack.
I have my own journey with self-stigma, and while I still have some stigma towards my own mental ill health, I try my best to actively challenge it when I can. I am gentle with myself when I’m unable to do something due to my depression or anxiety. I allow myself time without berating myself. I am open with people as much as I can be. I tell those around me the stigmatising thoughts that I have so they can help me actively challenge and combat them.
Stigma is reducing, but it’s still everywhere. There is an ‘acceptable’ level of mental illness but there is still huge societal stigma around serious mental illness. I believe in order to eradicate stigma we need to begin with ourselves.
It’s been a long while since I posted anything on this blog and I think it’s been because the past few years I’ve been in a lot of denial about my own mental health. In 2014 I started university, and in hopes of being a ‘normal’ student I pushed my mental illness aside and tried to ‘get on with it’. It didn’t work. The past few years have been marked with intermittent breakdowns and long stretching periods of depression for which I would get no help in the hopes that they would pass, but also because the NHS does not allow me to get any help. These past few years I have been my own worst enemy.
I find that often people who have to battle mental illness every day are labelled as ‘strong’, and it was this label that caught me out. I was ‘strong’ to the point where I ignored my own needs because I didn’t want to succumb or admit that I was unwell. But these past few months I’ve learnt that being strong isn’t about fighting through mental illnesses, because for some mental illness is a life long reality – it’s about endurance. I endure mental torture every day, I endure physical health problems every day, I endure having my mind and body against me and still I survive. The strength comes in survival, not in the being mental illness free.
The irony is, I feel so much stigma towards myself and my own mental illness. It’s a special brand of stigma, self-stigma, that we reserve especially for ourselves. The paradox of self-stigma has been fairly written about in academic literature and the effects can be seen in three ways; some people damage their self-esteem, some are invigorated and outraged by it, and some are neither. I am the former. I feel that me having my mental illness makes me weak and pathetic, things which if someone else was going through the same situation would never even cross my mind.
I am aware of my stigma towards myself, but some people are not. Some people are new to this, to navigating the world of mental health and to them I would say this, be kind to yourself. Take time out of you need to, this will probably not get better by itself. Take yourself out on long walks, write, think about life. Go to the doctors, but do not expect them to save you, because they are underfunded and the waits are far too long. I have spent so many years now just trying to get on with it, and let me tell you it does not work. We need help and we need support; what’s terrifying is that for years I tried to get help on the NHS and was completely unable to do so, the constant rejection that I have received from health services fuels my own feelings of unreservedness. Take all the time you need, it’s not worth pushing through and ‘getting over it’. It doesn’t work.