Many of us who look in the mirror don’t like what looks back at us. We moan we have too many wrinkles, too many grey hairs, we are too short or too tall, the list goes on and on. We are often highly critical of ourselves both physically and mentally. Instead of being positive and self-affirming of what others see we experience a range of negative emotions when we look at ourselves. Instead of seeing all the unique qualities and abilities we have as individuals we see fault, failure and inadequacy. The big question is why? Is it conditioning? Is it culture or is it something far deeper? We do this when we are doing okay so imagine what it must be like when things are not okay and experiencing mental health difficulties.
When someone experiences mental health difficulties this self-criticism is multiplied, transformed and becomes something which others struggle to recognise. Questions and self-accusations such as Why did this happen? What did I do wrong? what did I do to deserve this? all run amok during times of distress and ill health. This type of self-blame is destructive, overwhelming and can become even more difficult than the illness itself to manage. Regardless of the starting point for someone’s mental ill health self-stigma creeps in like a black cloud and without warning consumes and takes over one’s self esteem. Recovering from the loss of self-esteem, of self-worth, of believing that you are loved and have a place in the world can be a long and difficult journey. With the right care and treatment people can and do recover from their mental health difficulties but the lasting scars of self-stigma are often far more difficult to heal.
And then we move on to societal stigma around mental illness and how it can impact one’s recovery. This type of stigma presents its own difficulties. The realm of societal stigma is changing as more and more people are coming forward and speak openly and honestly about their mental health difficulties. However, mental illness is still a taboo subject for many. Stigma has its roots in fear and misunderstanding, a fear that has been driven in part by history. For many, psychiatric services were, and still are places to be feared, despite the old name of asylum which means a place of refuge and safety. This fear often translated into the local psychiatric service being used as a threat and whether or not we agree those fears don’t leave us. In times of ill-health those negative connotations of psychiatric services are at the forefront of people’s minds. There is still a plethora of half-truths and wrong information about mental ill health, myths from darker days and these fears and mis-information stop people coming forward and seeking appropriate help at an early stage in their illness.
Self-doubt about how we will be perceived, will people still like us, will they avoid us, what should we stay all run through our minds when considering disclosure. We now live in an ever-changing instantaneous society where everything is available at the flick of a switch, a swipe of the smartphone or a quick search of google. We are instagrammed, snap-chatted, what’s app’d, and facetimed. We know an awful lot about each other through the medium of social media but we often don’t have a clue about what is really going on. We post, share, retweet lots of information, our likes, dislikes, pictures of good times and events but, how often do we have an honest and open conversation about mental and emotional health? We have the technology and the mechanisms to communicate instantaneously yet a significant number would not disclose a mental health difficulty to others. For some, they value their privacy and just don’t talk but for others they often feel too ashamed, too worried and too frightened to admit that everything is not okay and the smiling picture online is not a representation of where things are really at. All these doubts and fears hold on tight and are difficult to shake.
As someone who engages with, and meets service users every day I see brave and courageous individuals who have come forward to seek help with their mental health difficulties. They have placed their trust in our service to help them on their journey to recovery. I see people, not diagnoses. Yes, I see suffering and struggles but I also see individuals who are doing their best to get well. I see the impact of stigma, particularly self-stigma far too often. So, I encourage anyone who is experiencing difficulties, and, everyone else to look in the mirror, to look beyond the physical façade and remind themselves how strong, brave and courageous they are! It is not easy, I know from personal experience because I look at my own grey hair, crows feet and tired eyes far too often! We all need to remind ourselves we are unique talented individuals with lots of abilities, skills and talents. Ask the mirror, who is the fairest of them all and tell it that it is you! Remind yourself recovery is possible, even if right in that moment you are struggling to believe it! Try not to stigmatise yourself, your journey may well be difficult but the added burden of self-stigma can often slow down recovery.
As Taylor Swift so aptly puts it: “Shake it off”. Easier said than done of course but when that burden of self-stigma has been lifted it can have a very positive impact on recovery. Self- stigma is stubborn so it may take a lot of shaking! Shake off self-stigma and give yourself the best chance of recovery possible.