#NoStigma, Media

25 August, 2022

How ending mental health stigma is a personal journey

We all have a personal journey to make around understanding and accepting mental health difficulties.

At St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, our 2022 Attitudes to Mental Health and Stigma Survey findings show that the COVID-19 pandemic had a positive impact on people’s attitudes towards mental health and the stigma around mental health. Now, more than two years after the pandemic began, there are signs that some progress made during the pandemic is falling back.

Accepting your own mental health

Accepting your own mental health

Gary Kiernan of our Service User and Supporters Council (SUAS) spoke on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland about his experience of mental health stigma through living with severe recurring depression. He explained that the first mental health stigma he became aware of was actually his own. Some years after his diagnosis, he began to wonder if he had accepted his mental health difficulty, and realised that he hadn’t. In order for other people to be able to understand what he was going through, he saw the need to better understand his own views around mental health and his thoughts about going through a mental health difficulty: he called it “making a friend with my depression”.

For Gary, accepting his own mental health was the turning point. He became more aware of other people’s thoughts around mental health, how stigma can be “subtly experienced”, and how people “weren’t aware of the effect of things that might be said in all innocence”. He gave the example of a time after he left hospital after receiving care for his depression. A good friend told him to look after himself, saying “you don’t want to be going in there again”. This made Gary feel like he was “asking for” a mental health difficulty: “it’s not something you’d say to someone with a physical illness or going for surgery, that they wouldn’t want to be going into hospital”.

Gary noted his concern that, although we talk a lot about mental health, we still really need to accept it. A really important message he wanted to share was that:

“when you’re sick, you’re sick. Please don’t be ashamed; please don’t see it as failure. The help is there, and the people who love you will want you to seek the help: that’s what’s so important”.

Being open to understanding mental health

Being open to understanding mental health

Speaking after Gary shared his experience, our Chief Executive Officer, Paul Gilligan, said that Gary has identified “the personal journey we all have to make” around mental health stigma”:

“that personal journey which says, actually, addressing mental health difficulties is not in any way a weakness or failure. In fact, it’s a very brave step. We should really try to acknowledge that.”

For Paul, in looking at people’s attitudes to mental health, the survey’s findings “overall are very encouraging. 89% of people would tell someone if they had a mental health difficulty. 77% of people would tell someone if they were experiencing suicidal thoughts. That’s showing great advancement over the past five years.”

He did point to progress that needs to be made. “There are some findings which are quite concerning. For example, 68% of people still believe that being treated for a mental health difficulty is still seen as a sign of personal failure and 22% would see it as a sign of weakness if they sought help. So, I think what we’re seeing is a pattern of growing awareness and acceptance, but, in our knowledge and understanding of mental health – particularly mental health difficulties – there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Paul explained that the COVID-19 pandemic placed all of us under psychological pressure. However, out of that, 45% of people introduced new ways to manage their mental wellness, which is very positive. Equally, more than half said that the pandemic presented an opportunity to reflect on values and priorities. For Paul, “the worry, I suppose, is that there was a permission in 2020 and 2021 to talk about our distress. Everybody could relate to that distress.” Now, as we go back to more of our norms, the pressure on us increases; there’s a lot of change to cope with; and people’s tolerance is maybe getting a bit tired.

Paul advised that we keep that sense of openness we saw during the pandemic going. If we think someone we know needs some support, “openness is really important”. It’s about “being able to give permission to the person to talk about that in their own way when they’re ready, but always making yourself available; pointing out to the person that you’re there to be able to listen, not to make value judgements, not panic; and then, at the right time, directing that person to the type of help they might need.”

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