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Care & Treatments, General

11 July, 2019

The mirror view: a reflection on self-stigma

When we experience mental health difficulties, a sense of self-doubt and self-blame can feel overwhelming. Our Information Centre Manager, Mary O'Hora, encourages us to try to leave self-stigma behind and to be supportive to ourselves in our journey to recovery.

Many of us who look in the mirror don’t like what looks back at us. We moan that we have too many wrinkles, too many grey hairs; we are too short or too tall; the list goes on and on.

We are often highly critical of ourselves, both physically and mentally. Instead of being positive and self-affirming of what others see, we experience a range of negative emotions when we look at ourselves. Instead of seeing all the unique qualities and abilities we have as individuals, we see fault, failure, and inadequacy. The big question is why? Is it conditioning? Is it culture, or is it something far deeper? We do this when we are mentally well, so, imagine what it must be like when someone is experiencing mental health difficulties.

Dealing with self-criticism

When someone experiences mental health difficulties, self-criticism is multiplied, transformed, and becomes something which others struggle to recognise.  Questions and self-accusations such as “why did this happen?”, “what did I do wrong?” or “what did I do to deserve this?” all run amok during times of distress and ill-health. This type of self-blame is destructive, overwhelming, and can become even more difficult than the illness itself to manage.

Regardless of the starting point for someone’s mental ill-health, self-stigma can creep in like a black cloud and, without warning, consume and take over one’s self esteem. Recovering from the loss of self-esteem, of self-worth, of believing that you are loved and have a place in the world can be a long and difficult journey. With the right care and treatment, people can and do recover from their mental health difficulties, but the lasting scars of self-stigma are often more difficult to heal.

Confronting social stigma

And then we move on to societal stigma around mental health challenges and how it can impact one’s recovery. This type of stigma presents its own difficulties. The realm of societal stigma is changing as more and more people are coming forward and speak openly and honestly about their mental health difficulties. However, mental ill-health is still a taboo subject for many.

Stigma has its roots in fear and misunderstanding, a fear that has been driven in part by history. For many, mental health services were and still are places to be feared. This fear often translated into the local mental health service being used as a threat and, whether or not we agree, those fears don’t leave us. In times of ill-health, those negative connotations of mental health services are at the forefront of people’s minds.

There is still a plethora of half-truths and wrong information about mental ill-health, myths from darker days, and these fears and misinformation stop people coming forward and seeking appropriate help at an early stage.

Disclosing our mental health

Self-doubt about how we will be perceived, whether people will still like us, and even whether they will avoid us or know what to say all run through our minds when considering disclosure. We now live in a fast-moving, instantaneous society where everything is available at the flick of a switch, a swipe of the smartphone, or a quick search of Google. We are Instagrammed, Snapchatted, Whatsapped, and Facetimed. We know an awful lot about each other through the medium of social media, but we often don’t have a clue about what is really going on. We post, share, retweet information, likes, dislikes, pictures of good times and events, but how often do we have an honest and open conversation about mental and emotional health?

We have the technology and the mechanisms to communicate instantaneously, yet a significant number would not disclose a mental health difficulty to others. For some, they value their privacy and just don’t talk, but, for others, they often feel too ashamed, too worried and too frightened to admit that everything is not okay, and the smiling picture online is not a representation of where things are really at.  All these doubts and fears hold on tight and are difficult to shake.

Reminding ourselves of our strength

When I talk to service users, I see brave and courageous individuals who have come forward to seek help with their mental health difficulties. They have placed their trust in our service to help them on their journey to recovery. I see people, not diagnoses. Yes, I see suffering and struggles, but I also see individuals who are doing their best to get well. I see the impact of stigma - particularly self-stigma - far too often.  

So, I encourage anyone who is experiencing difficulties - and everyone else - to look in the mirror, to look beyond the physical façade, and remind themselves how strong, brave and courageous they are!

It is not easy. We all need to remind ourselves we are unique, talented individuals with lots of abilities and skills.  Ask the mirror, who is the fairest of them all and tell it that it is you!  Remind yourself recovery is possible, even if, right in that moment, you are struggling to believe it.

Try not to stigmatise yourself; your journey may well be difficult, but the added burden of self-stigma can often slow down recovery. Ask yourself if you were talking to someone you know, what would you say to them: would you be encouraging and supportive? Absolutely! 

We need to be encouraging and supportive to ourselves in the journey to recovery and remind ourselves that, beyond the physical reflection, is a strong and courageous person doing the best they can.

Tags:   stigma   mental health   recovery   treatment  

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Balancing acceptance and change in the treatment of self-harm