Let’s start at the beginning: What is a stigma?
Sometimes we hear a word so often that it graduates into something of a buzzword, and after a while…we begin to tune it out entirely. We become so desensitized with it that it begins to lose its true meaning; its gravitas, so to speak. And this, I’m afraid, is one of the main issues with stigmas: the term itself seems to be getting in its own way.
A stigma, by definition, is when someone views you in a negative light because of “a distinguishing characteristic or trait that’s perceived as a disadvantage”. It is literally defined in the dictionary as “a mark of disgrace”. A negative stereotype. For the record, there are no “positive” stigmas. And for further context, a few of the synonyms for “stigma” are: Shame. Dishonor. Stain. Disgrace.
A stigma is, quite frankly, devastating.
The reason that understanding and recognizing stigmas is so important (and the reason I’m hammering this point home) is because stigmas are the predecessors to discrimination.
So what do we do about them?
It’s almost frustrating how simple it is: we normalize mental health.
When someone is struggling, we need to support them. And I don’t mean in a token, arms-length-away sort of way. I mean in a fundamentally, vulnerable, human sort of way. Because when someone is having a hard time mentally, I can tell you firsthand that the last thing they want to do is expose what they’re perceiving in that moment to be their weakness.
What we need is compassion. Sometimes space. Sometimes closeness. Often, we just need to talk. Or have someone comfort us. What we need is a platform to just express that it’s hard, that we feel weak, that it’s terrifying and humbling and not our fault but we feel guilty for it anyway…and to know that as hard as we’re trying to push through, we need a shoulder. We need it to be okay that we need a shoulder to lean on. To know that we’re not going to be in trouble for taking some time to heal. To know that this is normal and accepted.
The stigma lies in what our perception of “weakness” and “normal” is. Because we so often only celebrate perseverance, we forget to recognize the trials and tribulations in getting there. For some, just getting through the day can feel like running a marathon. We need to have the perspective that our perspective needs to be fluid and it must be able to change with each individual.
It’s actually quite easy to find common ground with someone who is struggling, because regardless of what they’re going through, the emotions we all feel are the same. We have all felt anxious. Worried. Devastated. Embarassed. Confused. These are all universal human emotions. The stigma surrounding mental health is that the fewer of these emotions that we feel – or rather, let on that we feel – the stronger of a human we are.
We need to normalize feeling things. We need to normalize that sometimes we won’t be at our shiniest. We need to normalize that having a bad day, or a tough week, calls for the entire village to take care of one of their own, without fear of judgement or repercussion.
Whether you’re the one having a tough time or the one supporting someone who is struggling, remember: mental health affects everyone. And we can unify – rather than stigmatize – the steps necessary to ensure that everyone has the support they need when they need it.
Because at some point, we all need it.
Kristopher Marks, courtesy of VIV Mental Health
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