Reducing Stigma Around Mental and Emotional Illness: A Threefold Agenda
Stigma around therapy and mental health issues is interconnected with our emotion-phobic society. We are beholden to an ancestral heritage that prioritized rationality and stoicism, while devaluing and disparaging emotional wisdom. People are judged and shamed for experiencing anything other than mostly positive emotions. We use words like “breaking down” when we cry or reveal any sign of vulnerability. As if, because we feel sad, hurt or are grieving, we are ‘broken’.
And so, we hide.
We suppress our sadness, fear and grief and suffer in silence.
Eventually, this suppression makes us ill. Our mental and emotional health, and often also physical health, will deteriorate, because denying and suppressing our emotions is not healthy or sustainable. Over time, unprocessed emotion and unresolved wounds can manifest into more serious mental health disorders, like clinical depression and anxiety.
Because we are all privy to the historical cultural conditioning around vulnerability and emotion, if we are not consciously challenging these beliefs, we inadvertently reinforce them. We unknowingly shame our children’s emotional expression, or we minimize our friend’s expressed pain (“You’re fine”, we say, because we want them to be fine).
I’ve heard too many stories of people being commended for being “so strong” after suffering a great loss, trauma, or a devastating medical diagnosis because they didn’t express any 'uncomfortable' emotion but only a ‘stiff upper lip’ positive attitude. This common response fuels internalized shame for feeling ‘not okay’ on the inside, leaving the person suffering to feel more isolated. They come to believe that if they don’t continue to hide their feelings of grief and sadness, they will be judged or disappoint loved ones, imbuing the belief that having any ‘negative’ emotions surrounding their loss is ‘weakness’.
People erroneously think they need to ‘say the right thing’ or have the solution to ‘fix’ another’s problem. Because they don’t know what to say to a friend who just lost a child, for example, they pull away from the person to avoid their own discomfort.
Mostly, people judge another’s vulnerability as ‘weakness’ because it threatens to open them up to their own vulnerability, their own unresolved and hidden wounds. If we cannot tolerate our own humanity, our own vulnerability, we will unconsciously shut down, judge the other or withdraw from them.
Mark Nepo calls for the “quiet braveries”.
“The courage to wait and watch with all of who we are. The courage to admit that we are not alone.”
We need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental and emotional health so that we can all be free to experience the full gamut of human experience.
I propose a threefold agenda:
1. Vulnerability is ‘Normal’ and Can Actually Be Useful
Opening up about our experiences with therapy is necessary to discredit cultural myths about emotions and vulnerability. As a clinical psychologist, I openly tell my clients that I too have ‘sat in that chair’ (i.e. had my own therapy). Celebrities and successful entrepreneurs opening up about their experiences with emotional pain significantly helps to reduce the perception that mental health struggles are ‘abnormal’ or that vulnerability is weak or bad. Tim Ferriss talking about his depression on MarieTV and Jay Z giving his shout out to the benefits of therapy are powerful messages that men are also feeling beings with vulnerability, serving to redefine masculinity and validate the importance of our emotional health.
Books by Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton promote the potential pay off of opening to our vulnerability; not only is it not weakness, but it can help us access deeper meaning, closer connections with others and wholehearted living. These representations help to disseminate a new cultural message that normalizes emotions and permits and promotes the benefits of vulnerability, which can powerfully disrupt the internalization of shame and help those suffering in silence feel less alone.
2. We Can All Learn to Hold Space for Each Other
People are not taught how to hold space for another. I had to go to graduate school in Counselling Psychology to learn how to listen without judgment, presence and genuine acceptance of another person and their story. It’s not necessary that we all become therapists, but we can all learn the skills to help us understand and tolerate our emotional experiences, which allows us to be a compassionate presence for others in our lives.
Mindfulness and compassion training includes practices that help people learn how to hold space for others in a way that is caring, kind and healing. In mindfulness meditation, we learn to observe with compassion and acceptance of whatever is arising in our own experience, which can help us sit with others in their space of pain or grief. Becoming more compassionate with ourselves and our own pain will strengthen our capacity to tolerate another's and to feel compassion and love for them. Feeling acceptance and compassion from another when opened to our vulnerability is the cure for the poison that is shame.
3. Government Support and Policy Changes
Debunking emotion phobia and reducing stigma around mental health must also engage at the government level where policies and funding decisions are being made. As more people seek help, the increased demand will be felt by community agencies and counselling centers. When people do reach out and help is not readily available (i.e., which is typical for free/low-cost services), there is a risk that the person will feel worse, reinforcing a belief that ‘help is not available’ and increasing the likelihood they will not reach out again.
Emotional wellness must be prioritized in the way that physical health is. Financial support for programs that both treat and prevent mental illness are needed, as are programs for counselling and psychological services available to people from all socioeconomic classes.
In the words of Maya Angelou, “Nobody can make it out here alone”. Each of us has within us the capacity to honor the person beside us with our presence and compassion. We can do so by opening first to our own vulnerability with self-compassion.
We will no longer say we are "breaking down" when we grieve our losses and experience tender emotions. We will be unapologetic in saying we are "Opening Up"to our humanness, the emotional experiences that connect us. Therein lies the freedom for us all.