Manta’s hands shake as her heart beats so fast she feels as though it could jump out of her chest.
Her head spins as a myriad of negative thoughts flow through her mind. She tries to talk to someone about it, but not everyone is willing to hear her out…
Manta suffers from anxiety, and according to recent statistics, she’s not alone.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 45 per cent of all Australians aged 16 to 85 years old have, at some point in their lifetime, experienced a mental disorder. That approximates to 7.3 million Australians.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are different types and levels of severity in mental illnesses – the major types being depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, and eating disorders. At their most extreme, people with depressive disorders aren’t able to get themselves out of bed or care for themselves. People suffering from certain types of anxiety disorders may find it difficult to leave the house, or practice rituals developed to help alleviate fears.
So, how often do you tell someone with a broken leg, or another visible ailment, to “just get over it”?
Not often at all.
People with mental illnesses aren’t so lucky. If they’re seen panicking or crying, someone who might not understand could tell them to “get over it” or “it can’t be that bad” or “I’m going through that too, it’s not that big a deal.”
According to 19-year-old anxiety sufferer Manta Kuusela, people living with a mental illness can find it difficult, and sometimes even risky, to talk about their situation or problems. “Every person’s experiences [with mental illness] are different, so what you are going through is impossible for someone else to understand,” she told The Newsroom.
“Mental illness is a wide topic that can be difficult to talk about in the first place because it is still so undermined in society.”
When Manta got into a fight with a loved one over her mental illness, the distress she felt was enough to send her to her room in tears. “They told me that it was all in my head and that I should just get over it because I was just over exaggerating… that it was nothing, which made me feel like nothing,” she said. “I felt like screaming out loud in frustration over the other person’s ignorance.”
When does stigma occur?
StigmaWatch Coordinator Jeremy Little said stigma (in regards to mental illness) refers to the uniformed and negative attitudes held by many in the community towards people with a mental illness – displayed through ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. According to the Queensland Government website, the stigma associated with mental illness may leave the person living with a mental illness feeling isolated which can lead to a loss of hope, a relapse or a worsening of their condition.
Senior Project Officer of Mindframe National Media Initiative Elena Terol said: “If reports of mental illness are inaccurate, unbalanced or sensationalist they can reinforce common myths and impact significantly on people experiencing mental illness, making them less likely to seek help when they need it.”
Mr Little said the stigma against mental illness is common and occurs in a variety of ways. “Stigma can occur in the way of inaccurate comments made by people in the media, prejudicial attitudes within medical services, discrimination of job seekers living with a mental illness, or people making flippant and inaccurate comments during a conversation.”
How can we reduce stigma?
To make a difference and reduce stigma, it’s important to be aware of the disadvantages and issues people diagnosed with a mental illness face. Manta said it’s also important to acknowledge people being treated for mental illnesses are entitled to have a say in their own lives.
Mr Little said the the most effective way to reduce stigma is for people to take personal action and educate their friends, family and others about the facts. “By standing up and correcting mistruths, highlighting offensive comments and busting myths about the symptoms and effect of mental illness, people living with a mental illness can take the lead in improving community attitudes,” he said.
Ms Terol told The Newsroom that Mindframe provides media personnel with information about reporting on mental illness and suicide to enable a more accurate and sensitive portrayal of suicide and mental health issues across all news media in Australia. “The presentation of negative images of mental illness in both fictional and non-fictional media results in the development of more negative and inaccurate beliefs about mental illness,” she said. “The presentation of positive images does not appear to balance negative media portrayals although mass media campaigns – particularly if they include personalised stories – have shown some positive effects.”
Sensitivity to the situation someone is in can do a world of good for their self esteem. When you meet someone who wants to talk about their experiences with mental illness, Manta suggests you listen. “Don’t give advice, don’t talk about your own experiences and how hard it was for you,” she said. “Just listen and feel fucking privileged that someone is willing and able to open so deeply about their life to you.”
Mr Little said the flow-on effects of stigma are wide and varied. “It can effect social acceptance and personal opportunities,” he said. “But most importantly it can affect a person’s feeling of self-worth.” – Jessica Heckley
Top photo from Len Matthews’ Flickr photostream.