Imagine this scenario. You’ve fallen down a flight of stairs and broken your leg. You call 9-1-1 to get help and you’re rushed to the hospital via ambulance. When you arrive to the ER however, instead of getting immediate help, you’re told that you need to wait your turn because your injury isn’t that severe. When you ask for painkillers, you’re told that you don’t really need them and that you need to stop feeling pain. Instead of being consoled my friends and family, you’re told “I wish you could just get over it” and “You’re just being dramatic”.
Many would describe the scenario just portrayed as extreme and unjust. Many would feel outraged if they received such treatment. Some would aim to correct this injustice. Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common among patients who suffer mental health issues.
No one would think twice if someone went to the doctor for a broken leg, but if someone sought help for an anxiety disorder or eating disorder, well…that’s when we have a problem.
I’ve experienced this kind of stigma first-hand. During my second year of university, I went to the ER complaining of breathing difficulties, chest pain, and a rapid heart-beat. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was having a panic attack. After a series of tests that ruled out the worst, the doctor approached me. He was annoyed. There was nothing wrong with me. I had wasted his time. It rang loud and clear on his face.
He explained to me that I needed to “follow-up” with my doctor. I displayed signs of an anxiety disorder. That’s all he would tell me.
“I still feel like I can’t breathe”.
“Do you want me to shove a scope down your throat and show you that nothing is wrong with you?!”
My encounter with stigma in the healthcare system is extreme and painful, but what devastates me more is that I know I am not alone. I have heard many similar stories from individuals who suffer from psychological disorders that they too have received little attention and care from health care staff.
So what can we do about stigma? With 1 in 3 adults experiencing a mental health disorder in their lifetime, it’s about time that our minds and attitudes undergo a drastic change.
“You can’t change people’s minds about mental health” is what many critics would argue.
But that’s actually what I am suggesting to you. We need an attitude adjustment.
It starts with education. And it begins with you. Educated yourself on mental health issues, especially if you know someone who struggles with a disorder themselves. This will mean the world to them.
Start with basic questions like:
What is mental health? Why is it important for overall health in general?
In addition to education, ending stigma requires a paradigm shift.
For generations, mental health was looked upon with contempt. People who suffered from depression and anxiety were often labelled as “insane” or “unstable”.
Labelling is a main culprit for why stigma is so prevalent in society today. People label each other in many different ways for a variety of reasons.
For example, in high school, my nickname was “Barbie”. It actually devastated me more than people realised. Was blonde hair really all what people saw when they looked at me? What about my love of music? My pursuit of learning? My desire to travel new places?
Or another example albeit it quite harsh took place at university when a fellow classmate called me “dramatic” and “unstable” after I experienced a series of panic attacks.
The act of labelling begins in the mind. It starts with people’s attitudes about someone or something, no matter how misinformed or incorrect, and manifests itself outward.
“I never realised that you struggled with anxiety disorder. You’re such a happy and giggly person. I never realised you were anxious.”
“I never realised you liked to sing. I don’t consider you to be a musical person.”
“I didn’t realise you wanted to do a PhD. You seem too pretty to be academic.”
Perhaps you have been labelled before. What did they say and why is it untrue?
I encourage you to revisit those instances. It’s important to recognize that those labels are not characteristics of who you are, but they are another person’s false understanding of you. They do not reflect you. They reflect the labeller and the society in which we live.
I am not an anxious person. I just struggle with anxiety. There’s a fine line between the two, but to confuse the two could lead to major consequences. Putting the label of “you are anxious” on someone who already struggles with anxiety disorder is extremely discouraging and can tempt that person into believing that they are their disorder. It can lead us to buy into the lies that society would have us believe: we are anxious people. I would suggest that we are not anxious. We are people who struggle with anxiety disorder. That is all. Anxiety is not us; it is something we fight every day.
It does not define us.
It is our strength which defines us.
My name is Rachel and this is Where I Stand.