YOUNG MINDS: Stigma and mental illness

Dr. Tahmeen Ali addresses issues surrounding mental health

  • Oct. 13, 2016 6:00 p.m.

Beginning today, Peace Arch News publishes a monthly column for the White Rock-South Surrey Division of Family Practice addressing issues surrounding youth mental health. In this inaugural article, Dr. Tahmeena Ali addresses perceptions of mental health.

If your son had an appointment to see a psychiatrist, would you tell his teacher?

What if the appointment was with an orthopedic surgeon, would you hesitate then?

If a co-worker returned to work after a suicide attempt, would there be cake in the staff room awaiting her return? How about if she returned from cancer treatment?

If a friend’s daughter had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, would you send her an article about the fallacy of ADHD? What if she had asthma?

Stigma affects how we approach these situations because it infiltrates our attitudes towards mental health.

Partly, it stems from misinformation: the mentally ill are dangerous; the mentally ill could fix themselves if they just tried harder; the mentally ill will never be cured.

It’s easier to label them as different – as the “other.”

When we start to think that mental health doesn’t affect us – that it’s the isolated problem of addicts or homeless people or patients in psychiatric facilities – we shame those who find themselves not feeling like themselves anymore.

Stigma matters because that shame prevents some from seeking help. They are too embarrassed. They think that nothing can be done. They think it’s their fault. They worry that others will think less of them. They suffer alone and in silence.

The reality is that everyone struggles with their mental health from time to time.

It’s like all of us experiencing a headache at least once in our lives. But that doesn’t mean that headaches become a problem for everyone.

For one in five Canadians, their mental health requires further diagnosis and treatments.

It’s the soccer coach who gets panic attacks before big games; the music teacher who takes daily medication to keep her bipolar disorder in remission; the physician who meditates every morning to help control his anxiety; the police officer who sees a psychologist to work through his depression.

I have little difficulty convincing patients to start thyroid medication when their thyroid gland is underactive.

People don’t hide their thyroid medication bottle when friends come to visit. No one asks me if they will become addicted to it. No one asks me if they can try coming off it in a few months because they feel better.

They are relieved to take a medication that finally alleviates their symptoms.

But when I explain to patients that a mental illness is contributing to their physical symptoms, they get defensive. They think I’m accusing them of not taking good enough care of themselves, or that I don’t believe in the validity of their physical complaints.

When medications are needed, they worry about addiction and length of treatment.

Medications are seen as the enemy and not part of the solution.

Words further contribute to stigma. Using words like “crazy” or “nuts” or “psycho” in casual conversation belittles the mentally ill further.

No one would think of yelling “cancer survivor” to insult someone. Words matter.

Just because our brain is the only organ that we directly interact with doesn’t mean that it always follows our requests.

Our brain is a part of our body, and it’s high time we started to treat all parts of it – both the physical and emotional – as an equal partner.

Without the stigma.

Dr. Tahmeena Ali is a member of the White Rock-South Surrey Local Action Team, one of 64 working as part of a provincial Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative funded by Doctors of BC and the B.C. government.

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