Stigma in mental health: the ultimate barrier to get help for 1 in 6 Europeans

Stigma in mental health: the ultimate barrier to get help for 1 in 6 Europeans

Media perpetuates stigma

Mental health ambassador from the Netherlands Kees Dijkman says that media tend to write and speak about people with mental health problems as ‘abnormal’, in the sense that they do not behave as they should. People with mental health problems are often referred to as a threat to society. Such a narrative puts forward judgments about other people’s behaviour while completely ignoring their own experiences.

Instead of contributing to misrepresentations which may cause huge offence and distress, media can play a pivotal role in helping end mental health stigma. Journalists could provide more background information, avoid stereotyping and talk to the person in question, rather than about the person.

Mr Dijkman warns that the way people with lived experience of mental health problems are portrayed in the media has negative consequences for them in real life. Misrepresentation makes it more difficult for people with lived experience of mental health problems to reach out for help. The traumatic experiences of Finnish MEP Alviina Alametsä and the mental health issues she suffered as a result underline the need to de-stigmatise mental health.

MEP Alametsä – stigma creates barriers to seek help

Alviina Alametsä from the Greens/EFA is a member of the Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Parliament. In 2007, at the age of 15, she survived a mass shooting at her school in Jokela, some 50km north of Helsinki in Finland that killed nine people. In the aftermath, she grappled with the loss of friends as well as suicides of students in the wake of the shooting. Stigmatisation around mental health issues made it difficult for Alametsä to get professional help.

“There were a lot of barriers. Especially, of course, in your own mind, when you’re thinking “I have to survive.” There’s also a euphoric feeling related to being a survivor. That’s what might also be harmful to you because then you feel like you should be able to survive the aftermath too. That you are strong enough; you should be strong enough, and the worst is already over. But the truth is that the worst is not over at that point. The whole process of this entire school grieving and the stigma around the mental illnesses come afterwards. It’s really easy to hold onto that thought “Now I have to survive and have to do it on my own.” Especially as a teenager, you don’t want to show your vulnerability too much. That was a big stigma around it also after the whole event. If there had been a therapy guarantee in Finland at that point when I was really young, I think that I would have been in a lot better place, a lot sooner. I think that could actually save lives.”

A lot has changed since then. Last year a citizen’s initiative for a therapy guarantee was submitted by a coalition of 24 mental health groups led by Alametsä. It garnered the support of 50,000 citizens. The health minister promised to implement the guarantee for youth in schools, by granting them 5 to 10 sessions of psychotherapy or other effective therapy, and to grant funding for municipalities to improve mental healthcare services. The Finnish government discussed the initiative; it did not pass as such but gained support from all political parties and put in motion many changes.

Additionally, in February 2020, Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health released a national mental health strategy for 2020-2030. It envisions to improve mental health services and put the rights of people with lived experience of mental health problems at the centre. As a City Councillor, Alametsä also made initiatives that resulted in opening a walk-in mental health clinic in Helsinki, a model that has proved successful to treat and prevent mental health problems.

Policy-makers need to invest in mental health literacy

To avoid further stereotyping and discrimination against whole sections of the population experiencing mental health difficulties, national and European policy-makers should invest in mental health literacy and public communication initiatives on mental health. Such initiatives could highlight the importance of our mental health, and how our mental health is influenced by a range of social determinants such as where we live, work and age.

Asking for help when it comes to mental ill health encompasses so many challenges as it is still considered a “taboo”. Stigmatisation, be it self-stigmatisation or societal, only contributes to the feeling of helplessness and isolation for people with mental health issues. But the truth is, mental ill health is more common than we think: nearly 1 in 6 people across the EU have experienced mental ill health during their lives. We all have mental health, and it is just as important as our physical health. It is high time to change our attitude when it comes to the stigmatisation of mental ill health and protect the rights of people with lived experience of mental health problems.


(Image credit: Pixabay)

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