The Social Stigma of Mental Health

When we buy a motor vehicle – whether old or new, we look after it. We think nothing about making sure the engine is finely tuned, has the right fuel, oil and goes in for a regular service. After all, no matter how well designed the engine is, things can go wrong. There is certainly no social stigma attached to sending the car to the mechanic.

So why then, is there such a social stigma about mental health? It is a point that I have grappled with for years. I simply do not understand the social stigma attached to mental health issues. Why do people feel guilt, shame, or the need to be secretive, when we suffer? This is a question that I would like to examine in more detail.

Back to the analogy of the motor engine. You could say it is the epic centre of the motor vehicle. Sure, you need to look after the body of the motor vehicle, but without a nicely working engine, that car is just not going anywhere – certainly not on that journey you have planned.

We could view the brain as our engine. It is the epi-centre of our body. It is the organ that controls movement, thoughts, feelings, speech, emotions – to name but a few. It is an incredibly complicated feat of engineering. I remember talking to my son’s neurosurgeon a few years ago – a man, since retired, who was a forerunner in paediatric neurosurgery in Australia. We had a discussion about how things have changed in knowledge, research and technology since he first started operating many years before. He told me that, even though we have come such a long way with what we know about the brain, we are still pioneers on understanding its full complexity.

If someone likes this man – a famous specialist within this country, does not understand the full workings of the brain – what hope does the average person have? Going back to our motor vehicle – why do we assume that nothing will go wrong with our brain? That does not make sense – after all, the brain is a far more complicated engineering gadget than a motor vehicle.

It is the most common misapprehension that our thoughts and emotions are, in their natural state, “normal”. What is “normal” in this instance? The most common perception is that our thoughts and feelings are, in their healthy state – positive and balanced.  Sorry, but that’s not entirely true. Our thoughts, emotions and feelings are trained, through centuries of evolution, to alert our bodies to danger. Our senses have developed to assist in this regard. If this is the case, it only goes to say our thoughts are quite often negative. We wake up to a noise at night – our first thoughts are – “is there an intruder?” That “bad feeling” we instantly get about someone we first meet. These thoughts, whilst negative, are programmed into our brains to help protect us. We have developed, if you like, as “glass half empty”.

So where does this leave us – with a mechanically complicated brain that is always thinking bad thoughts? Of course not – well not entirely. The point I am trying to make is that things can, and do, go wrong with the brain – much like it does to a finely tuned racing car. Whilst our brains are programmed to negative thoughts for protection – being overly negative is not helpful to anyone, least of all ourselves. It just leaves us in a state of permanent agitation or anxiety and feeling downright miserable.

The job of a mental health professional, if you like, is that of a mechanic. In varying degrees, our brains are always in need of a good service, or at the very least a fine tune. I love the conversations that inevitably arise when people find out what I do for a living. I cannot tell you how many times I hear “well I’m fine – nothing wrong with me”. Sure, that may be true sometimes, but nine times out of ten, the person that tells you he or she is “fine”, is the person that needs the most help.

Why the shame? I really have no idea! If we suddenly have a heart attack, we go on cardiac tablets, bed rest and change of lifestyle. Is there shame? Of course not. When it comes to the brain, and mental health issues – that is a different story. As humans, what we often fear the most, are the things we understand the least. We often don’t know what causes certain mental health issues. The behaviour that can result from certain issues can be scary to the untrained eye.

But this attitude needs to change. Whilst anxiety, stress, domestic violence and suicide are on the increase there has never been a time where we need to challenge these beliefs more than right now. I dream of the day where people will walk into my office as comfortably as they do to the motor mechanic…

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