by Andrea M. Darcy
Is there anything worse than gathering your courage to let someone know you are struggling, only to be faced with mental health stigma?
Examples of mental health stigma
You tell a colleague at work you are suffering from an anxiety disorder and they give you a blank stare then change the topic.
Or you tell the person you’ve been dating lately (and really like) that you have had problems with depression in the past, and they respond by telling you to ‘be more grateful for what you have’.
And your heart crashes. The black hole re-opens and you fall in.
Such responses are not about you, they are about the other person. Mental health stigma is uneducated, outdated, and insensitive, but sadly still happens all the time.
How to handle anxiety and depression stigma
So how you can you handle it when you are face-to-face with ignorance around mental health issues?
1. Don’t trust your immediate thoughts.
Depression and anxiety involve a tendency toward cognitive distortions – thoughts that seem logic at the time, but are out of line with reality.
And any experience that leaves us feeling ashamed or belittled (and stigma definitely does both) can throw us into the worst of such distortions.
This includes extreme thinking, revenge thoughts, and doom thoughts. At worse these thoughts will be tempting you to self-harm or even leave you suicidal.
Question each thought you have no matter how creative or logical it seems in the moment. If you were feeling good in this moment, would you be having these thoughts?
2. Get busy doing something else. Now.
Remind yourself that whatever you feel like doing in this moment can wait a day. This isn’t about not defending yourself. It’s about recognising that when you are depressed or anxious you are vulnerable and/or prone to impulsivity and doing things you later regret. Your priority has to be good self-care.
So don’t send the person a ranting email about how ignorant they are, or declaring you never want to see them again, or send 100 articles on how to handle depressed people. And definitely don’t contact everyone you both know to ‘set the record straight’.
Instead, try something like the following to delay taking action:
- change environments (even if it’s just a fake toilet break)
- start a physical task that requires full attention
- engage in a banal conversation with someone you don’t know too well
- blast music and sing along (dance along too, even better)
- go for a walk and practice deep breathing as you go
- get out into nature (now evidence-based as helpful for stress)
- do any form of exercise – it not only distracts you but it counters the very real physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
3. Reach out to one person who does understand.
One person, not calling everyone in your phone and talking for hours. Stigma is horrible. But making a drama out of this will make you feel worse and not better, and the idea is to practise extreme self-care right now.
Choose a person you know is safe for you and you can trust and who understands your mental health issue well.
If you don’t have someone like this available in your life, call a hotline.
It doesn’t make you weird or crazy to use a mental health hotline. It just makes you a human having a temporary hard time.
In the UK, you can call the Good Samaritans. Also consider online forums for depression and anxiety where other people who have been through what you have will rally about you.
4. Let as much time pass as you can bear to.
In a few days, the world might feel a better place. You might be having a better day and feeling stronger (or not. That’s okay, too). That person might still not understand your upset, or might still judge you, but you might not care as much.
It’s also possible that that person who belittled you was acting from fear, and will experience a change of heart. They might have gone and done some research about mental health.
Don’t have expectations, but know that you can’t predict future. If you react immediately to anxiety and depression stigma, life and other people have no room to surprise you.
5. Don’t talk to him or her if you don’t want to.
Many people who experience mental health issues are very sensitive, caring people who worry about hurting other people’s feelings and doing the right thing.
But if the idea of talking to the person who judged your mental health makes you feel very stressed, it’s just not worth it.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation until you are ready, and you don’t owe anyone an education. It’s not your job to set the record straight on mental health. But you do owe yourself a fighting chance to keep going the best way you can.
Of course if you experience mental health stigma at work, it’s a different situation. In this case try to talk only about work issues, and avoid them as possible.
6. Embrace the power of statistics when it comes to mental health stigma.
It’s 2017. It’s now common knowledge that things like anxiety and depression are normal – around 20% of us here in the UK suffer at any given time, according to England’s mental health organisation.
The NHS’ mental health task force seconded this recently, estimating that one in four of us experiences a mental health issue each year. And the government is looking to invest 11.7 billion into mental health care this year.
Even the royal family are talking about mental health issues nowadays. Take comfort in the fact that the other person is the weirdo here, for not understanding mental health concerns.
8. Respond only if and when you are ready.
When time has passed and you are feeling calm, and you’d like to share with the other person how you felt about their judgements about your mental health, it’s of course well within your rights.
It’s an idea to practice what you plan to say with that trusted friend, just to be sure that you are not about to self-sabotage and upset yourself. And emails can be an easier option, meaning you can include links to useful information about depression and anxiety.
9. Seek professional support if you haven’t already.
Feeling shamed about your mental health can trigger old issues. If you were in therapy but haven’t been lately, and this experience leaves you feeling spiralling or out-of-control in a way that worsens or doesn’t change after several weeks, reach out for support.
What if it’s at work and the mental health stigma comes from my boss?
It’s a hard situation to be in, but it is discrimination and you do have rights. Learn more about these rights at the website of the UK charity Time to Change.
Need to talk to someone about depression and/or anxiety? Harley Therapy connects you with friendly, highly experienced psychotherapists and counselling psychologists in central London locations, or worldwide via online counselling.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She also runs a consultancy helping people find their perfect therapy and therapist. She experienced mental health stigma from her own family, so she knows what it’s like! Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy