Do we still need the anti-stigma movement? (spoiler: yes!)
Campaigning for change is a tricky business. I say that because most regular campaigns have a neat timeline with a distinct end point and tangible goals. Achieving a cultural shift on the other hand takes time. It requires passion, persistence, and patience (alliteration not intended). The wins are often tiny steps towards a bigger end goal.
Mental health is a prime example. We’ve come a long way in challenging negative and damaging attitudes around mental ill health and suicide, but recent events have handed us a sharp reminder that the anti-stigma movement is still very much needed.
Recovery Worker Adrienne tells me, “while it’s great we have celebrities talking about mental health, we’ve also seen a growing number of celebrities and controversial figures doubting and denying peoples’ experiences, calling them weak and attention seeking. This perpetuates the stigma that people are just talking about suicide to get attention. We’ve seen so many people, both everyday and celebrity, be called liars and weak for bravely speaking about their suicidal thoughts and attempts. Stigma is very much still around.
“When someone opens up about their suicidal thoughts and they encounter a heavily stigmatised and negative response, then the person may not want to open up again. More often than not, suicidal thoughts can remain even if the person is no longer actively considering suicide or attempting it.
“By disbelieving and insulting the efforts of someone opening up, the person may allow the thoughts to build up and up and up so leading to circular thoughts, and rumination. They may feel as if they have no one to turn to. They may have received confirmation of their negative self-talk and thoughts, justifying their suicidal thoughts, and this may lead to an increase in the likelihood of suicide attempts
“I know, from my own personal experiences, that by feeling supported and having the space to talk, has kept my suicidal thoughts, anxieties, and traumas at bay, but when I was within environments where I was doubted, called a liar, and an attention seeker, I felt hopeless and like life wasn’t worth living because no one cared. I’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship and been doubted and called a liar and attention seeker and nuisance for having poor mental health including suicidal thoughts, and an attempt. So, I know the people involved in that environment still hold that negative, disbelieving attitude towards me, and I know I can’t be within that environment again otherwise I would be ignored and have my suicidal and negative self-talk confirmed and justified”.
Some of what Adrienne describes is reflected in the experiences of our peer colleague, Dave who says, “there was a time when I had people in my life who didn’t believe my anxiety was real, so I stopped talking about it, which made the problem worse.”
Stigmatising mental ill health and suicide is real and harmful. It shames people into staying quiet. It disempowers friends and loved ones from being able to strike up important, potentially life-saving, conversations.