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Negative Impact of Stigma and Cultural Attitude Towards Mental Illness

Post by on Sunday, April 3, 2022

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It’s just a phase, I am sure you will snap out of it”

“You are going to a shrink? What will people say?” 

“Just do some yoga and go out with your friends, it’s all in your head. You’ll be just fine.


These phrases are quite familiar to most people who have in the past or are at the moment suffering from some form of mental illness. These phrases might seem quite harmless in the grand scope of words that are said to a person with a mental illness but these “harmless” statements set a very dangerous narrative for both the patients and the mental health care practitioners in our society.

When a person has pain in their joints they go to a rheumatologist, when that person has impairment in their vision they visit an ophthalmologist, when a person is diagnosed with cancer they visit an oncologist and not just in the body but also in the things that surround us, if the tv is broken you call in a technician, if your car isn’t working you call in a mechanic. It is a pattern of behavior accepted and expected by the society- that when something is not working right you visit the respective expert to help fix that thing and make it function again. All of this insight however is lost when the thing in question is our mind and the expert help to be sought is from a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

Before we talk anymore on the stigma of mental health, let us define what stigma is. Stigma is when someone views another individual or a group of individuals in a negative light based on their unique personality traits that are not considered to be a “norm” in the society. This stigma can then lead to discrimination or prejudiced behavior towards that individual or group of individuals. When a negative narrative is set in the world about mental illness- the stigma faced by the person experiencing these mental health issues is double faceted. Not only must they face the stigma that is created by the society but they must then also face the internal stigma that has been inbuilt in them over the years because of the tone that has already been set regarding mental illnesses in the world that surrounds them. They must fight not only the views of their society but also feel shame and doubt for the issues that they are dealing with in regards to their mental health.

In the negative impact of the stigmatization towards mental health issues there is perhaps only one thing that matters- the person who is suffering won’t seek help from the fear of being labeled and seen differently by their family, friends and society in general. Imagine if a person with a broken leg refuses to go see a doctor because he is afraid of being labeled as disabled. He instead chooses to stumble around with his broken leg- living his life in pain and the people around him tell him to get over it or snap out of it or better yet, get that yoga mat out and do some yoga because that fixes EVERYTHING. Sounds quite absurd, does it not? So why is that an acceptable solution to the problems of someone facing mental health issues?

The cultural aspect alway plays a huge role in this stigmatization. Where awareness regarding mental health has made great strides in the western world, we the South Asian community seem to be quite behind in our steps and need a lot of catching up to do. I recently had a client call, telling me about how she was sad all the time, how she had severe anxiety at just the thought of going out of her room and had suicidal thoughts now and then. I asked her if she had shared this information with her parents and if they were in favor of her seeking help regarding her struggles, she said her father did not believe in any such thing and asked her to be strong and cope up with her problems on her own. She further explained that she knew she needed help, but she was ashamed and did not want to let her family down and herein lies the problem and the solution to our Indian society and their stigma for mental health.

We are a society with strong family values that believes in leaving no member of the family behind. We work on the principle of collectivism and so every action we take does not just represent us as an individual- it represents our roots and our culture.  

So a person going to therapy is seen as a reflection of their family, the famous “ Log kya kahenge” situation. Most Indian children strive for validation from their parents and as the parents grow older they strive for validation from their children. It is all interconnected. So how exactly do we create the space of acceptability and a positive open space in this labyrinth of a society we live in?

We start right here and now, we start by educating ourselves and knowing better about what mental illness is and what it can do to a person. In layman terms, we all feel sad, we all feel anxious, we all get excited to experience new things. What makes a mental illness an illness, or what sets depression apart from your usual sadness is the impairment of the normal function of life that these emotions can cause. You can be sad about a certain situation and still move on with your usual life but if a person is suffering through depression, they will lose their will to get up out of bed, to eat, work or do everyday things (of course the degree of impairment varies from person to person).

About 450 million people worldwide are suffering from mental health issues so most probably either you or someone you know needs you to be there and be open to their experiences and just be understanding. And again this might not just be for someone in the society- if you are suffering from a mental illness understand that you are not alone and your illness is nothing to be ashamed of. There are millions of others on the same boat as you and that your suffering is valid.

Another important thing to keep in mind is to understand that a mental health disorder does not define the person. We as a society must separate the person from their disorder- for instance you would usually say“Jon has a broken leg” , “Preeti got diagnosed with cancer”- the ailment is not their entire identity, it is simply something they got and are going to see a doctor to get better similarly “ Aakash is not bipolar, he has bipolar” and Aakash will go see his therapist and his psychiatrist to address this issue.

A person with a mental health disorder is seen as weak, lazy, dangerous and we as a society, as a family, as a collective must work hard to make this place more tolerable and acceptable to our near and dear ones who are suffering from a mental health crisis. We must ensure we create a safe space for them so they can heal from their traumas and illnesses whether physical or mental and in doing so we will create a truly collective society the essence of which is to move forward together as a unit. In order to do that I think it is important not only to give therapy to the people suffering from mental health issues but also provide targeted sessions to the family and friends in order to generate empathy and sensitize them regarding this issue. This will not only help them become more aware and be more acceptable to what their loved one is going through, but also be better equipped to handle them at times of crisis.

In the day and age where knowledge is at the palm of our hand, where we can look up the most complicated of texts on our phone or consume information in more palatable entertaining form through social media let us together make an effort and utilize it to educate ourselves on mental health because being ignorant is not the way of the world anymore. The onus of learning now lies on the people and with great power comes great responsibility- said every superhero ever! So I will let you decide if you want to be on the side of the super heroes on this one or not?

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