Can Mental Illness Ever Be Stigma Free?

Growing up, the picture I had of a mentally ill person was the man at the waste dump area dressed shabbily and picking items from the trash. That was what ‘mad’ meant. We were conditioned to believe that he had been condemned to such a life due to his own wickedness and iniquities. I am not the only one with that picture. Though statistics may not come to my aid on this one, I strongly believe that more than 70% of Nigerians (the most populous country in Africa) fall in line with my assertion. Which begs the question; can mental illness truly be stigma free?

How do I begin to explain to my people that a lifelong generational misconception is rooted in utter ignorance? That what we thought was a punishment from witchcraft was in fact a result of chemical imbalances in the brain? Make no mistake, this is not limited to the African belief, it presents itself differently across race, culture, nationality, religious beliefs, gender and sexual/social orientation.

Having experienced firsthand the depths of major depressive disorder and a spectrum of anxiety, I wonder how I may begin to explain to anyone who has been fortunate to have escaped the grasp of faulty neurotransmitters in their brains. In the mental illness community, we often say that “You don’t understand, and I can’t explain”.

Common misconceptions that depression is synonymous with sadness, and happiness is the opposite, only make the dialogue harder. Depression is in fact nothing like sadness, and the opposite, in essence, is more like vitality. In addition, careless misuse of mental illness lingua – like “the weather is so bipolar” and “I swear she’s a neat freak, she’s so OCD” – only belittle the severity of the illness. It’s a mystery that we don’t easily hear such about other more ‘physical’ illnesses. When a huge part of the population still believe that mental illnesses are self-afflicted and can be overcome by ‘bucking up’, we are still a long way to go. Let’s not even get started on the faith communities not doing enough to displace the ideology that faith and mental illnesses cannot coexist in a body.

Since mental illnesses are still seen as a sign of weakness, how can men – whom have been conditioned to rise above any form of weakness – even admit to such, when the very fabric of their masculinity may just be questioned, further tugging on stigmatization.

I could go on and on, but my point is clear. There is a whole lot to be done in and outside the mental health community. The first step would be to EDUCATE the general public on what indeed mental illnesses are; their causes, how to seek help and be of help. One does not assume if one knows. The second step is to ENCOURAGE people living with mental illnesses to take back their narrative and indeed speak up. To join hands with advocacy groups and mental health bodies to speak openly about mental illnesses. We need to give mental illness a voice, and who best to do that than those who actually live with these illnesses. The third step will be to ENGAGE government, faith, gender-based and professional bodies in strategically pushing mental health related campaigns and directing funds and attention to actively include mental health as a priority in general health and wellbeing.

Like many other causes, we have barely begun to scratch the surface.