#Safezone: Stigma Against Mental Health In African Societies Cripples Its Improvement

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Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person,  that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage [a negative stereotype]. Discrimination often arises from stigma, and it could span from the odd negative remark to avoiding people for absurd reasons. Stigma in regards to mental health. the stigma in relation to mental health in Nigeria is deeply entrenched in our society, as much as going to Yaba psychiatric hospital for a checkup, is enough to stigmatized as straitjacket mad and avoided. This stigma affects adolescents and adults to points where they do not fully communicate, or even recognize, their symptoms, this impedes many from seeking the help they require.

As someone with social anxiety disorder, I’ve often been stigmatized in new environments as being proud and thinking of myself to be better than everyone else, where in actuality I was scared out of my body to talk to new people. Like in my first year of university, when someone let me know that the girls in my department often gossiped about me being a proud snob for not approaching any of them to talk, this obviously pulled me further away from them, from irrationally thinking people thought less of me, to actually knowing they did. That stigma did no good for my interpersonal relationships throughout university. In retrospect, I don’t blame them now, it just makes me think that they would’ve reacted differently if conversations about mental illness were a thing and they could tell if they saw social anxiety disorder and tried to help, rather than hurt.

For young people, for instance, with depression, they’ve probably heard stuff like ‘You’re just sad, cheer up’ ‘You’re too young to be depressed’ ‘What are you going through to be depressed? People have it way worse’ too many times to count, it’s rather daunting to have everyone make you feel like you’re the cause of the chemical imbalances in your brain, and give you no viable choice to make it stop other than ‘Cheer up’ [Thanks, I’m cured… ].

People assume mental illness only happens to other people. They don’t recognize the experiences they’re having as symptoms or manifestations of mental illness, so most end up simply not asking for help, and reluctant to take it when given the opportunity. With mental illness, the shame doesn’t come from having it; the shame comes from feeling that we have to hide it.

We can recognize that mental illness may be a part of who we are—a part that has to be managed, just like having a speech impediment or asthma—but that does not define us or devalue us. By telling our tales, we can avoid missing out on life by hiding those parts of us.

There is a great lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others, discussions about mental illness often end abruptly with someone asking God to help us, ignoring the fact that it is a problem.  The stigma attached to suicide, for example, prevents us from actually tackling this problem head-on, and treat it like a problem deserving of pragmatic solutions; rather than something that happens often that we pray for God to solve and save us from white culture.

Coping with already existent Stigma

Get treatment: Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help, and in turn, create self-doubt and shame from believing you should be able to control what you’re going through without help and your struggles are a sign of weakness. Isolating yourself also isn’t a great idea; try reaching out to friends and family sensitive enough to handle the discussion of your ailments.

Positive reinforcement is a great self-help tactic, don’t equate yourself with your illness: You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.”

Join a support group. Being in or following some local groups, such as  Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, or twitter accounts like Psyched-up can go a long way in making you feel less alone.

Speak out against stigma. Consider expressing your opinions at events, or on the internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness. Generally, more open dialogue about mental health [yours and in general] will do a great deal of good, repressing these conversations is how the stigma keeps on propagating. You never know, you may end up educating yourself and others about it.

Stifling stigma as a society

We need to incorporate mental health studies into our school systems/curriculum, I didn’t hear a thing about depression in biology, primary or integrated science. I had to grapple with the ideas of these concepts on my own, and that can be difficult, confusing and may take a long time. Kids need to be educated with these concepts as soon as possible in order to not spend a considerable amount of their lives believing that they’re inadequate.

If someone comes to you with their mental health issue, please refrain from referring to their struggles as “a phase” or something they can control “if only they tried.” many do this because we do not encourage equality between physical and mental Illness. You won’t make fun of someone with cancer or heart disease unless of course, you’re asshole of the year. With mental health, it shouldn’t be any different.

Let the media know when they’re being stigmatizing; the way the public let Maggi know they were stigmatizing with an ad that was perpetuating negative feminine gender role representations & stereotypes. If you notice a film, series, documentary, etc, that misrepresents mental illness, you can write to them laying out your grievance, more often, negative stereotypes are furthered due to ignorance, and writing to that producer may help someone in a position of power in media dissemination, to know how to not use that power in a destructive way.

I believe we should add mental health to our index of words and be more frequent in day-to-day conversation. And while we encourage ourselves to talk more openly about mental health, we should also try to be conscious of language, because words hurt too.

In the end, others’ projections & judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.


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