Applied Psychology

Mental illness stigma: How the young royals are making a difference

Mar 27, 2018
Mental Illness Stigma

Will, Kate and Harry have started a crucial conversation around mental health. Here’s why (and how) you should be talking about it too.

Key takeaways

  • Speaking about mental health concerns is the first crucial step toward getting help.
  • Led by the younger generation of British Royals, the Heads Together campaign aims to get the public talking about mental health.
  • Preparation, timing and proactively opening up about your struggles are some of the ways to start a conversation around your own mental health problems.

Ruby Wax sits beside her husband on their couch. “I’m only relieved,” she tells him emotionally, “when I’m with other people who have mental illness.”

The comedienne is one of a handful of celebrities who have lent their voices to Heads Together. Led by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, the campaign aims to get the public talking about mental health. In a series of short videos, everyday people, as well as some celebrities, relate their personal problems to a loved one.

In one video, model Adwoa Aboah tries to describe her crippling depression to her mother. In another, writer Alastair Campbell tells his wife that her reactions to his depression annoy him. Yet each all participants admits that talking about their problems and concerns was a crucial step toward getting help.

Creating a dialogue

The time is long overdue that we stopped putting our hands over our ears and started to listen to the conversation about mental health. Mental health difficulties are widespread and affect the lives of many South Africans. It is very likely that you know someone who faces immense challenges on a daily basis – they might share your workspace, your school desk or even your home.

Distressingly, the stats speak for themselves. Global rates of anxiety and depression have increased by 70 percent in the last 25 years. The amount of young people who are hospitalised with a psychiatric condition has doubled since 2009. Excluding those who are in hospital or in prison, three to five people in every 100 suffer from a personality disorder. One to three people in every 100 suffer from bipolar disorder and another one to three people in every 100 suffer from schizophrenia. And mental health issues in older people have increased significantly over the past few years.

While the Royals might have opened the conversation around the daily trials of living with mental health problems, the promotion of good mental health is a crucial point of discussion. After all, the absence of a mental health problem is not the same as having good mental health! In many ways mental health is much like physical health: our minds and bodies need to be well rested, nourished and exercised. Just as we recognise signs of our body taking strain so we should pay attention to our mental state and take steps to maintain our best health. Most importantly, this shows us that the discussion of mental health is one that involves everyone.

Open minds

There are many who say that the Royals are doing more for removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues than their country’s own government. Indeed, the videos coincide with the largest ever survey of the British public’s attitude to mental health, published by YouGov. It paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, a quarter of Britons have spoken to others about their own mental health; 80 percent of them have found conversations helpful. However, only a tiny proportion has brought their issues up at work or with counsellors.

Speaking openly about mental health is as important for South Africans as it is for Britons. Widespread poverty, community violence and overburdened state services place South Africans at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, highlighting how crucial it is to address stigma. In addition, mental healthcare in South Africa is particularly under-resourced and difficult to access, leaving those of us facing a mental health problem feeling isolated and alienated from our friends and family. What these videos show is that mental health issues can strike anyone – male or female, young or old, famous or not. We can only tackle a universal problem by acting together; credit to Will, Kate and Harry for leading the way.

Start the Conversation

Speaking about mental health can be extremely difficult, especially for those of us who struggle daily with mental health problems. Maintaining mental health is a responsibility that everyone shares (even the Royals!), so join the conversation!

Here are a few pointers to help you out:

Be attentive

Be sure to show the person you are talking to that you are listening and interested in what they have to say. Put the cellphone away, find a quiet spot, free from distraction, and give your full attention. Doing this will show your conversation partner that you respect them and acknowledge the good possibility that entering this discussion took a lot of courage.

Be sensitive

While maintaining good mental health is something that we all share, we should try our best to be respectful of other’s experiences. “I know how you feel” is the enemy here because you don’t. Even when individuals share very similar circumstances, each person perceives the world uniquely and we need to be mindful of this, especially when talking about mental health.

Don’t give solutions

When someone tells us about the challenges that they are facing, the solutions might seem obvious to us and we try to help by sharing them. Unfortunately, this might lead the person with whom you are speaking to feel like you are closing the conversation. Often, when we speak to others about our problems, what we really need is someone to be there for us while we process our own thoughts and feelings.

Listen and feel

Try to practice active listening when talking to others about mental health. Listen carefully to what they are saying and try to imagine how it might feel. Put yourself in their shoes for a few minutes while you are guided through your partner’s experience of maintaining his or her mental health.

Don’t disregard

People who contend with mental health problems are often written off as attention-seekers. This can only do harm, so leave diagnosis to the professionals and remember that people reach out for help in different ways.

If the mental health field is of interest to you, consider studying psychology at SACAP. The psychology courses on offer can help pave the way for a career in psychology, while providing you with valuable skills that will be valuable in other career fields as well. For more information, enquire now.

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