World Mental Health Day – Why Social Stigma Still Exists

Like a lot of people, mental illness is something I’ve been well-acquainted with my whole life. Close family members have suffered daily since before my birth and the stigma of societal shame is rooted so deeply that I feel uneasy speaking about it, even now. Some stories aren’t mine to tell; I may be experiencing a climate of mental health awareness but generations before me weren’t as lucky. They have been mistreated by ignorance, mishandled by health services and misunderstood for so long that the damage seems irreparable. I grew up with impossible fantasies of ‘saving’ those around me: if only I did this or said that, or X, Y, Z happened, things would be different. Normal. It took me years to realise I needed to look after myself first. Messages like “You can’t pour from an empty cup” are not easy to internalise. I still get the urge to control the uncontrollable, to ‘save’ people, and I’m still far away from accepting that self-care is not selfish.

My mind has been a sea of fog for too long so I made a choice. I can stay frustrated at injustice or I can use the knowledge I’ve attained over the years to shed some enlightenment. There are only so many times you can lie on your bed listening to The Smiths, after all. (That’s a lie, The Smiths are timeless, and self-compassion is important!).

Until very recently, secrecy around battling with your mental health was advised for fear of prejudice. 1 in 4 people struggle with a mental illness at any time and yet the mental health spectrum is yet to be common knowledge. There’s an unconscious separation between mentally ‘well’ and mentally ‘ill’ as if it were black and white. Several factors play into this:

The Sociopathic Model of Society

From a young age we are taught our worth is defined by material things and that success is a result of being ruthless. Ideas such as “It’s dog eat dog out there” and “every man for himself” are presented to us as ‘facts of life’ so we internalise the script. It becomes our inner reality. We are taught to honour our ego and battle with our emotions: we don’t learn to have empathy for ourselves, let alone anybody else. The illusion that you are solely responsible for every fact of your life corresponds to individuals seeing their mental health as entirely within their control, and therefore suffering seems like a personal weakness. Of course, this is untrue. When we live in a culture that labels unorthodox behaviour as ‘insane/nutty’ etc, we force people to repress their feelings out of self-preservation. The notion that normality equates to a constantly ‘happy’ or well-balanced mind is unrealistic and ignorant. You are not an anomaly if some days are harder than others. That is normal. That is human.

Masculinity and Misogyny

The bogus ‘battle of the sexes’ is indoctrinated into us as children. Gender roles limit us in numerous nuanced ways, from men being told to ‘man up’ when upset to women being routinely objectified. Our society is patriarchal so the fact of gender as a performance is more obviously superfluous and thus ridiculed in women, who are labelled ‘crazy’ as a consequence of ‘othering’. Allegedly, feelings are ‘feminine’. Realistically, all of us are emotional beings. Male suicide rates are high, in part, because the pressures of toxic masculinity – where people are forced to live through their ego and stuff their feelings as though they aren’t there, place an unfair burden on a person. It’s only in the 21st century that we are beginning to change the conversation: to allow people to let their guard down. Again, we have suffered at the hands of separatism. The age of information is allowing us to bridge the gaps and offer support to healthy self-expression but subconscious beliefs are hard to shift, especially when they have media support. The work continues.

A Lack of Understanding

There’s still an unspoken idea that all brains are created equal. We have to seek out information that gives our greater opportunities for self-awareness, such as the fact some people are genetically predisposed to depression or psychopathy, or that a toxic environment in youth can alter the way your brain develops. Likewise, traumatic events can trigger chemical imbalances at any stage in life and it’s necessary to acknowledge how your mind works. The way a person’s brain operates is not their fault and I hope you never fall into the trap of judging yourself for it. It is what it is, and more importantly, it can change. Our brains are incredibly powerful.

These are a few reasons as to why I think mental health has been misunderstood for so long. In a future post I’m going to dispense some ideas of how you can look after your mental health, no matter who you are. Or, at least, I’m going to share what’s worked for me.

May the force be with you.

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My Brother Julius

I come from a big family. My immediate family contains several generations, ranging from my folks; born in the 1940s, to me, a 90s kid. I’m the youngest of 5, which is a fortunate position in some ways. I’ve been blessed with the wisdom and support of my older brothers and sister over the years. My eldest brother is 19 years older than me. (A crazy big age gap, I know). Like any milennial blogger, the necessity of gratitude is just as familiar a concept to me as it is to Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. And as such, here is a list of reasons as to why I’m grateful to Julius.

Useful and Kind things Julius has done for me

Awoke nightly to feed and comfort me when I was just a weepy baby.

Let little me watch Beavis and Butthead with him, thus making me a punk-ass metal child \m/

Took me to Elhap, an adventure playground where I could play all day with other kiddies.

– Took me on memorable trips with said adventure playground, like the time I had my face painted like a ‘multi-coloured butterfly’ and stayed on the swings for literally hours.

When I was 11, he took me to the cinema one summer to see lots of different films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, School of Rock, Lizzie McGuire movie etc. We saw LOADS of films.

He used to walk me home from school, often buying me crisps and chocolate to treat me. Some slight rule-breaking going on here as my parents weren’t as keen on the sweets.

In the 2000s, he took me to Amnesty International meetings and encouraged my empathy for those seeking asylum at a young age.

Every year he buys me extravagant birthday cards and presents. Always huge cards and thoughtful gifts.

As a young whippersnapper, he gave me books on astrology because I enjoy indulging theories about the universe and spirituality, as does he. Not many people are so open-minded so that’s a stroke of luck.

His poetry circle is vast and he invited me into his online poetry community so I can attain feedback on my words if I so wish, as well as reading other contemporary poets.

Lastly, and perhaps most cruicial of all, he tells me vital pop culture information, like the fact R.E.M refused to play ‘Shiny Happy People’ because it got too popular maaaaan, or that Elvis has the same birthday as David Bowie.

There is obviously more but I have to cut the blogpost off somewhere eh?

Thanks, bro.