A few days back, the youngest daughter of one of my friends died by suicide at 24 on the eve of her wedding. I was shell-shocked. Then I came to know she had bipolar disorder.
It felt like having a knife passing through my heart. I have known that friend for years, yet, I never knew about this. Why? It’s because she never opened up about her daughter’s illness. Moreover, she never took her to any doctor.
Once again- a big WHY?
The simple answer is that she was ashamed to share it with us or take her to a doctor.
Unfortunately, mental health concerns seem to be a matter of shame. So no one talks about it openly, and this is one of the leading causes that has seen the rise in deaths by suicide worldwide.
A study by Aachol Foundation found that more than 532 students of schools, colleges and universities across Bangladesh died by suicide in 2022. It’s very alarming.
According to the World Health Organization, one in every eight people worldwide has a mental disorder.
Mental health is a part of our overall health. And, like physical illness, mental illnesses are not a choice or a personal flaw but medical conditions that require care .Cari Dwyer, director, Exhibit Project Management, Minnesota Science Center and Project
It’s high time we normalised discussions on mental health concerns. We must also create awareness of its devastating impact on the person affected so that people take it seriously, just like cancer.
Normalising mental health means treating it just as we treat our physical health or disease. It’s just as concerning as physical health. I would say more because it usually stays undiagnosed until it turns fatal.
Mental health and physical health are correlated. Poor mental health has a detrimental effect on physical fitness and vice versa.
Studies suggest that depression can have a 40% higher risk of developing heart disease than the general population. It’s one of the main leading causes of suicidal deaths.
To normalise mental health, we must first know a little about mental health concerns.
Each mental health condition has its signs and symptoms. A few primary symptoms of a mentally affected person will have significant personality changes, eating or sleeping patterns; reduced capability to concentrate, an inability to cope with problems; withdrawal from friends and daily activities; extreme mood swings, uncontrolled fears, worries, anger, feelings of guilt and sadness; fatigue, excessive violence and suicidal thoughts.
Physical problems such as stomach pain, back pain, and headaches may also occur.
According to the Harvard Medical School, depression and anxiety result from more complex and personal things than just a chemical imbalance.
There can be a wide range of causes. Some factors could be different forms of abuse, trauma, loneliness, discrimination, poverty, losing someone beloved, long-term stress and physical illness, unemployment, being a long-term caregiver, drug and alcohol misuse, domestic violence or being the victim of war.
According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, in 2019, at least 50 million children in India were affected by mental health issues. The report states that 80 – 90 percent of people didn’t seek support.
In India and many other countries, mental health problems are almost taboo. People think it’s not normal to have mental health issues, so they keep it secret from family and friends or deny it when asked.
Silence is one of the most dangerous things for a mental health disorder. The reason for this silence is the stigma attached. Mental health disorder is seen as a disgrace and shame. Regrettably, the stigma of mental illness is common and rooted in our lives. It comes in many forms of negative attitudes and beliefs, leading to discrimination; lack of understanding by family, friends and co-workers; fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities; bullying, physical violence or harassment etc. People might also avoid the person affected, assuming the person to be dangerous or using derogatory language.
It makes the affected person feel unfit, ashamed or hurt. The sufferer becomes reluctant to seek the much-needed professional help or treatment and withdraws into a cocoon shell.
Normalising mental health concerns will help remove the stigma and prejudice attached and make it easier for affected people or families to come forward and seek medical help. Their families, communities and governments should support people with mental illnesses.
So how do we normalise mental health concerns?
Speaking openly about mental health concerns with friends, family, and co-workers can help normalise conversations and create an atmosphere of trust for others to feel safe sharing their problems.
When someone speaks about some beloved ones or their mental health, listen patiently without any interruption. Sometimes people want someone to listen, not try to fix their problems. Once they end, show empathy. Let them feel comfortable to share their thoughts. Don’t be judgmental, critical or blaming. Make them think it’s not taboo.
Ask them if they need any help from you. Let them feel your warmth and know you are there for them when needed.
Each mental health condition is unique and has its own symptoms, behaviours and treatment. Do some research and educate yourself and others. Respond to misperceptions, misconceptions or negative comments by sharing information with others. But remember to inform them that you are not an authority on the subject (unless you are one). Tell them that the affected need help and understanding.
While discussing mental health, be very cautious about the language you use. Most often, negative words like weird, insane, and dangerous are used to describe mental health patients. Though they may not be used to offend anyone, these fuel the stigma attached. Instead, use more general terms like stress and anxiety. Incorporating the right words will help alleviate stigma.
Many celebrities openly discuss their mental health conditions, like Demi Lovato, Daniele Radcliffe, Lady Gaga, Leonardo Dicaprio, Adele, etc. They are setting examples to normalise mental health discussions and that it’s completely normal to struggle with our mental health, ask for help, and get treatment when needed.
It’s about time we all say it loud and clear.
We need to destigmatise mental illnesses along with normalising the issue.
Destigmatising mental health will help remove the shame or disgrace associated with it.
Mental health condition is not a sign of weakness. It can happen to anyone, just like a physical illness, and should be seen like any other regular health issue that must be discussed and taken care of. There should be no self-doubt and shame.
Stigma typically stems from a lack of information based on facts. Speak out against stigma openly, with care. Helping educate others can make a big difference. It will encourage those facing the symptoms to be more open and break the barrier of stigma. It will create easy access to prevention and get treatment for the affected person, which will help the affected person gain self-esteem.
Don’t be afraid of people being judgmental. Life is precious - don’t let it go wasted.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of people being affected by mental illnesses. This has increased awareness among the general public to make healthy lifestyle changes. It has also helped us focus more on the psychological well-being of our loved ones. Seeking help is essential.
Stigma is a hindrance in recognising or seeking help for mental health disorders. The longer it goes untreated, the more severe it becomes.
Most mental illnesses are treatable. People with mental illnesses can live productive and happy lives.
Psychotherapists can assess and diagnose mental health conditions. They can offer guidance and potential solutions to patients to strengthen self-confidence and positive behavioural changes.
Let’s watch out for the symptoms in ourselves and those around us, encouraging the affected to seek help.
None of us are immune to this. The next person affected can be anyone: you, me or one of our beloved ones.
Isn’t it time we created a culture that normalises and destigmatises mental health conversations?
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own for informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for consultation with a licensed healthcare practitioner.
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]
1. Redmond, Kendra, Mental Health Matters–Normalising the Conversation, Society of Physics students, Fall 2018
2. Mayo clinic staff, Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness, Mayo Clinic
3. Mental Disorders, World Health Organization, 8 June 2022