The stigma of mental illness in NZ

Unfortunately, we live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But, if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. We are so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brains. And that’s ignorance. That’s pure ignorance. And that ignorance created a world that doesn’t understand depression that doesn’t understand mental health. The stigma towards people with mental illnesses in New Zealand is a major cause for concern and something needs to change. Us as a society need to acknowledge it and make an effort to educate ourselves in the basics of mental illness, so we can normalize it and initiate a conversation about it.

Mental illness prevalence in New Zealand is rising fast and significantly. The 2016/2017 New Zealand health survey found that one in six New Zealanders have been diagnosed with a common mental illness such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder at some point of their lifetime. Eight percent of adults have experienced psychological stress in the past four weeks. According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand has the 4th highest suicide rates in the world, with up to 50,000 people per year making a suicide plan. How can we keep maintaining our discriminating views on mental health when this many people think about taking their own life each year?

1-in-6.png

The media plays a large part on how society views mental illness. The mass media, including television, movies, print and social media, are the primary source of information about mental illnesses, often portraying them in a negative light. This contributes to the development of the public’s negative attitudes towards mental illnesses. This was seen in the recent Netflix drama “13 Reason’s Why.” This series addresses a whole range of controversial issues including mental health, self-harm and suicide. Although, one side of the argument is that this series has allowed the conversation regarding these issues, it also romanticised and idealised self-harm and suicide. We do want to increase awareness of this issues, just not in this way as it shows graphic and explicit details which could be replicated by a vulnerable target audience.

The stigma and discrimination of people with mental illness is one of the biggest barriers that people face to recovery. A 2004 survey by the New Zealand mental health foundation found that eighty-four percent of those living with mental illnesses reported having experienced discrimination. The stigma exists when people are recognised as different, then labelled and identified as such. It is a mark of shame, disgrace and disapproval. Stigma is attached to a person, which can affect them in many ways. We must recognise that common mental illnesses such as depression, often will not just go away if a person ignores it, it requires treatment, either medication or therapy. Something that has a somewhat easy fix can become an arduous process, due to the desire to not be discriminated due to seeking treatment.

Looking back at my own struggles in the world of mental illness, I am struck by the lack of support I experienced from my friends. One minute I was ‘normal’ with great group of friends, but the second I showed weakness they were gone, only to appear again when I recovered. I believe that the stigma of mental illness is a significant problem in New Zealand. It is hard enough to have to live with these illnesses on daily basis, hard enough to get out of bed without fear that if you do, someone is going to make a snarky comment or look at you as if you are weak.

One of the key parts of recovery is having a strong network of friends and family support, people to support you on your darkest days and help hold you up. If your family or friends cannot give you that support network, then it makes recovery 10 times harder.

There are three strategies that have been found to help reduce stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illnesses. Firstly, education to replace the myths about mental illness with correct factual information. Secondly, contact. It is challenging discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through direct interactions with people who have experienced mental illnesses. The last strategy is through protest. We must protest actions that suppress discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards people with mental illness. Complaint or objection, through protest, an attempt to suppress stigmatizing attitudes by directly instructing individuals not to think about or consider negative stereotypes. These are findings from a national report in 2009.

I am not saying that this is the only issue affecting New Zealand’s population, but it is extremely important to recognize that there has been more attention on mental health and illnesses in recent years and this is likely to continue. However, the statistics on mental health are still dire, and nothing is being done to change them. We must educate people, so that mental health becomes normalized. When this occurs, we will finally be able to talk about it and with luck see past the stigma.

-Charlotte L