The stigma around mental health: How to be more accessible and familiar to young people?

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How does mental health stigma affect individuals’ intention and willingness to seek professional help? Apparently, public and self-stigma can make people hesitate to ask for professional mental health support, despite the advances in mental health awareness and the increasing, genuine interest that people are expressing towards it. The stigma that is combined with professional mental health help seeking can vary among different cultures and countries. Stigma can have numerous social and personal impact on an individual, therefore overcoming it has been a main concern for mental health experts.

By doing a short historical review, one can easily notice that people’s attitude towards mental health seeking has changed a lot over the past few decades. Α quick interaction and discussion with one of your parents or an older person, will most likely make you understand that they seem pretty open to professional support seeking, but only if it does not concern them or yourself! People are often defensive and tend to “raise walls” around their close environment when it comes to professional counseling support. They seem to try and keep up with societal tendencies, but deep down they are still attached to the stigma and stereotypical beliefs that have been following mental health seeking the previous years. On the other hand, if your parents are genuinely receptive to professional help and even seek it for themselves, then you must consider yourself lucky! 

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable enough the fact that gen z and younger people in general are more open and curious about mental health being a part of everybody’s life. They even tend to use phrases and vocabulary related to mental health like “gaslighting”, “ghosting, “toxic” etc. without even knowing! The fast and radical changes that our world is facing, in combination with the impact of social media and technology’s development, has led a great number of young people to consider mental health support as a requirement for our daily life. It is considered to help them organize better their daily obligations, their thoughts, and emotions. Its contribution to stress and anxiety management is also one of the main goals of professional mental help and counseling. 

At this point, it is important to highlight that for the past few decades, counseling and seeking professional support is not related to dealing with a mental disorder or an illness. On the contrary, its main goal is self-help: help people develop their innate potentials, deal with daily stress and anxiety, and organize their life in a way that makes them more effective and functional. 

The intention and motivation to seek professional mental support can differ among the different cultures and social contexts depending on their norms. Research has shown a significant difference between individualistic and collectivistic societies concerning both the intention to seek professional help and the public and self-stigma that follows it. More particularly, in collectivistic societies, it’s common for individuals to turn to their close relationships for support, so professional help might interrupt these relationships. Therefore, collectivism is negatively associated with having positive, help-seeking attitudes.

As far as stigma is concerned, in every culture, it is considered a predictor of barriers to seek help. However, individuals from collectivistic societies seem more worried about their ingroups’ reactions and the impact that their choices could bring on them. On the other hand, people from individualistic societies seem less concerned and open to this idea! Individualistic societies and the west world’s people are more independent, autonomous and confident when it comes to mental help seeking. They consider it a trait of modern culture and a “normal” part of daily life.  

The sources of stigma are various as well as the negative impacts it can cause. It has its roots to specific cultural beliefs and stereotypical attitudes, because in some cultures mental discomfort is identified as illness and is viewed as a sign of weakness. In these cultures, one can notice judgment and criticism behaviors addressed to metal support seekers. Another significant factor is the lack of education and information about mental health support and psychotherapy, which leads to misconceptions and misunderstandings. Therefore, it seems reasonable that stigma discourages individuals from seeking help because they fear being judged and discriminated. Apart from that, many mental health seekers experience social isolation and rejecting behaviors even on behalf of their loved ones. For all those reasons and many more, professional help seeking should be normalized and become more accessible and familiar with people. 

Well, how could that become possible? Here are some suggestions that might seem useful…

  • There should be a broader variety of economical options from which the clients could choose.  Although mental health support and guidance can be important and helpful, it remains an expensive hobby! That’s one of the reasons that makes potential clients hesitate.
  • The information and education concerning professional support and counseling should be more integrated, realistic and detailed. That could be achieved via various educational projects and seminars in schools and working places as well as activities open to the public.
  • One more improvement is to increase the accessible counseling and professional help services. They can have different forms like online counseling and SOS telephone lines, that could facilitate the contact and enable someone to express their feelings and thoughts, without feeling uncomfortable, as the anonymity is guaranteed. 
  • Another important factor that is related to the efficacy of a therapeutic process is the therapist’s attitude and personality traits. A competent therapist should be well educated and informed and have proper skills and technical knowledge to carry out the therapeutic techniques. Undoubtedly, they have to be authentic, non-critical and show genuine interest in the way that their clients are experiencing their discomfort. One important detail is the need for them to be culturally competent in order to provide the proper services to people coming from different cultures.

Overall, evidently professional help seeking as well as that being socially accepted is still prevented from stigma around mental health. However, awareness raising, and complete information can improve and potentially solve this situation, in order for individuals to feel safe and comfortable when sharing thoughts and experiences. Let’s all work together and try to break those stereotypes and promote acceptance and understanding. Each one of us can make a small step, and all together we can make a crucial change. 

Click here to watch an interesting TEDtalk about the importance of speaking about mental health and stopping the stigma around it.

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