Mental health problems are common, with many people experiencing them at least once in their lifetime. These problems can cover a range of different disorders from depression to bipolar disorders. Some might have a known cause, such as anxiety from a major event like the COVID-19 pandemic, a response to trauma, or the birth of a child, while others may seem to strike out of nowhere. Although mental illness is deserving of compassion, sympathy, and treatment like any other illness such as diabetes or cancer, the perception is often very different. Lack of understanding means that poor mental health is seen as a fault of character and as a result, there remains a stigma around mental health.
The stigma of mental health
The stigma of mental health has a long history with its roots in the lunatic asylums and dangerous treatments of the past, such as bloodletting, shock therapy, and lobotomies. Even as treatments improved, the stigma remained with many doubting the existence of many mental health conditions, regarding it as something that was ‘all in the mind’ that could improve if only the sufferer would ‘pull themselves together’. Men particularly can feel that poor mental health is a sign of weakness that they ought to overcome without help.
The consequences of stigma
Stigma exists on multiple levels. There is the public sigma which reflects the beliefs of others, self-stigma reflecting the beliefs of the patient themselves, and institutional stigma which may be inherent in government policies. Additionally, different cultures and religions can approach mental health in different ways.
Public stigma may result in friends and families distancing themselves, loss of employment opportunities, and landlords being unwilling to rent, which in time may lead to an increased risk of homelessness. They may also face bullying and harassment.
Institutional stigma can manifest in public policies, meaning that laws against discrimination are not passed. It may also mean that less funding is dedicated to mental health support and that health insurers are less willing to fund treatment.
For the patient, the impact of the public and institutional stigma, combined with their own internal beliefs of mental health, can result in a sense of shame. They may find it hard to talk about their mental health difficulties, meaning that they have little or no support in their illness. They may also be unwilling to seek professional help. The lack of proper treatment may mean that patients self-medicate with alcohol or drugs instead, often exacerbating their mental health problems as well as causing other health issues. Even those who do seek help may not stay with the treatment plan.
In the workplace, sufferers may feel unwilling to take sick leave for mental health purposes and employers may be less understanding of those that do compared to those who take sick leave for other health conditions. This may mean that a sufferer leaves employment altogether rather than simply taking the time they genuinely need. In turn, this may lead to poverty.
Talking about mental health is an important step and in recent years, high-profile celebrities have opened up about their experiences with mental health, truly helping to prove that it can affect anyone.
Mental health professionals such as counselors can help lobby for change and raise awareness about how common mental illness is, as well as making sure the public are aware of the treatments available for them or their loved ones. Mental health conditions do have a knock-on effect to the sufferer’s friends and family. Although it is common for friends and family to distance themselves from a mental health sufferer, this is not necessarily out of judgment but more from a fear that they do not know how to adequately offer support. Campaigns can help increase awareness and offer support to anyone helping a loved one through a mental health condition.
In recent years, technology has played an increasing role in mental health treatment, reducing the stigma and making it more accessible. If an individual wants to be a part of the movement that tackles mental health stigma, increases treatment accessibility, and makes a difference in the lives of mental health patients, a career in mental health counseling could be a good path.
A degree course that is well worth considering if looking into counseling is the Master of Arts in Counseling and Human Development at Walsh University. This course covers the theory through online study and puts it into practice through internships and practicums, so students experience how counselors can boost mental health accessibility and tackle stigma. Additionally, through study, students will gain up-to-date knowledge on the latest technological developments and how they can help patients.
Technology is transforming all aspects of daily life and counseling is no exception to this, as it becomes used to increase accessibility and tackle stigma. While it is unlikely to ever replace face-to-face counseling sessions, it is being used alongside traditional counseling techniques to help achieve better outcomes for mental health patients.
Telehealth allows counselors to see clients without needing to be in the same geographical location. It can use phone calls, video calls, or even messaging services to connect counselors and clients. This is something that makes it particularly beneficial for rural areas where people may need to travel significant distances to see a counselor in person.
It can also make counseling more accessible for those worried about the stigma of mental health. Some people may feel more comfortable communicating via phone or video calls rather than meeting a counselor in person. It also gives them more flexibility on how they communicate, so if they prefer messaging to speaking, that too can be facilitated.
If a client is having a particularly difficult time and does not want to leave their home to attend counseling sessions, telehealth allows counselors to keep in touch and continue to offer support. It also means if a client feels comfortable with a counselor, they can continue to receive their support no matter where the counselor is.
Although mental illness is very common, becoming mentally ill can feel very lonely with a sense that other people do not understand because so many people do not speak up about it. However, online it is possible to connect with others suffering from mental illness and perhaps even the same mental illness. As these connections are formed online, people may feel much more comfortable opening up about their mental illness.
Counseling services may offer online group therapy that allows clients to chat to other people experiencing the same, or there may be a support group for families to learn from each other how best to support a mental health patient.
Mental health patients can also find support informally, through their own research. There may be social media groups and online forums on a particular mental illness or more general mental health. While the usual caveats apply about being careful speaking to strangers to online, as no one can be sure exactly who they are talking to or whether they have any genuine expertise and experience, these groups can be a valuable fountain of knowledge.
Apps and websites
The internet has brought a wealth of knowledge into homes. For anyone looking for a counselor or support group, a quick internet search can show what is available and may even include reviews or comments so a potential client can consider whether it is the best fit for them. As with any illness, when it is being diagnosed and treated there can be a vast amount of information that is difficult to take in during a consultation. However, the internet allows sufferers and their families to do their own research. Mental health doctors, nurses, and counselors can recommend good sites to those patients and their families to make sure they are getting the expert info they require to understand their condition. Seeing the research and science behind their condition can also help tackle stigma, emphasizing that mental health conditions are genuine illnesses and not ‘all in the mind’.
Another tool that counselors can recommend are apps geared to support mental health. These can be used as another way to facilitate communication between counselors and clients provide tools such as meditation that can help the clients manage their condition. Having these tools available is empowering and allows them to feel more in control, something that can help counter the internal stigma.
Traditional and modern
There are an array of techniques in mental health treatment. Research has meant that the damaging practices of the past are now obsolete, while tried and tested methods continue to be used. There are also new developments, such as technology, that can deliver further benefits and enhance the traditional approach. When training to be a mental health professional, individuals will be taught how to use both techniques to deliver the best results for clients, while also boosting accessibility and reducing stigma.