May is Mental Health Awareness month around the world. The University of The Bahamas psychology department, the Bahamas Psychological Association, and other mental health agencies in our country are making an intentional effort to inform and raise the awareness of those living with mental or behavioral health issues and to help reduce the stigma so many endure every day. This is one reason the theme for mental health month in The Bahamas is “Mental Health is Health Too”.
Unfortunately, a percentage of the Bahamian population does not equate mental health with physical health. They think it is normal to get sick in your stomach but not in your brain (emotionally/psychologically). This has caused and continues to cause severe distress, crippling misunderstandings and a painful stigma that is rotting the very core of our national health.
Wikipedia states, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” In the article, “Break the stigma: Seeking help for mental health”, psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Martin Haycraft, of Adventist Health, states, “We need to understand that mental illnesses are biological conditions, just like other physical diseases or illnesses.” In other words, mental health is brain health.
Dr. Haycraft also states, “Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to seeking mental health care. For some reason, people often have an expectation that they should not need help for a mental illness or they think that needing help makes them weak. If a person has pneumonia, they will prioritize seeing a doctor – but if they are feeling overwhelmed to the point where they cannot deal with life, people think they should be able to handle it alone.”
There are many Bahamians who are taking medication for serious psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder but feel they have to keep it a secret because of fear of being looked down upon or treated terribly. Although many of these people are actually living healthy, well-balanced lives, and some hold leadership positions, they dare not let anyone know about their lifelong secret. Why is it this way? When a person has a heart attack or kidney failure, the supporters and friends gravitate to them like they are magnets. On the other hand, those with a mental illness are left cold, alone, and friendless. Sometimes these individuals feel as though the stigma of having a mental illness is more serious than the illness itself. It is like being dragged into a long, dark tunnel with no lights at the end to help with navigation.
“Many people who struggle with the symptoms of depression, anxiety or another mental illness don’t feel that they can be open with their friends or family. Whatever we can do to help normalize these experiences will be helpful in breaking stigma,” said Dr. Haycraft. The other essential piece, he shares, is broader education about mental health diagnoses. Often, people do not recognize or know the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses like clinical depression. Hopefully, during mental health month, people will be more educated about mental illnesses. We must remove the stigma of mental illness.
In a Mayo Clinic 2017 article titled, “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness”, the staff writer states: “Stigma can lead to discrimination. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding you because the person assumes you could be unstable, violent or dangerous due to your mental illness. You may even judge yourself.”
The article also shares some of the harmful
effects of the stigma:
• Reluctance to seek help or treatment.
• Lack of understanding by family, friends, coworkers or others.
• Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing.
• Bullying, physical violence or harassment.
• Health insurance that does not adequately cover your mental illness treatment.
• The belief that you will never succeed at certain challenges or that you cannot improve your situation.
I hope you will find a way to better understand the importance of mental health and remove the stigma of mental illness – remember, one day it may be you.
• Barrington H. Brennen is a marriage and family therapist. Send your questions or comments to email@example.com or write to P.O. Box CB-13019, Nassau, The Bahamas, or visit www.soencouragement.org or call 242-327-1980 or 242-477-4002.