Mental health stigma isn’t always what it seems

Mar 30, 2020

There has always been stigma around mental health but there is more to it than meets the eye.

Stigma around mental health is often credited as the biggest stumbling block to improving outcomes for people with mental health conditions. 

This is despite research that shows people are not as judgemental towards others with mental health conditions as might be commonly thought. 

According to the most recent National Survey of Mental Health Literacy and Stigma in 2011, there are three common misconceptions around how mental health conditions are perceived. For example, in relation to anxiety conditions, the study found that:
• 90 per cent of people in Australia believe an anxiety condition is a real medical illness;
• 86 per cent say they do not consider anxiety a personal weakness; and 
• 86 per cent do not believe anxiety is something you can ‘snap out of’. 

The layers of stigma

Stigma is not as black and white as some think. A 2018 report from Beyond Blue placed stigma around anxiety into three categories:
• Actual social stigma – “What I personally think about people with anxiety”
• Perceived social stigma – “What I believe others think about people with anxiety”
• Self stigma – “What I would think about myself if I had anxiety”.

The research revealed that 38 per cent of those with an anxiety condition say they feel inadequate around other people, while 43 per cent admitted feeling like they are a burden to other people.

This contrasts with just 13 per cent of people who believe that those with anxiety do not make suitable employees and 17 per cent who think people with anxiety are unstable.

Consequently, self stigma appears to loom as the bigger factor, which is particularly interesting in a workplace context. 

Beyond Blue’s Answering the Call Survey, a study of over 21,000 police and emergency services personnel with application to workplaces more broadly, found that of those with mental health conditions:
• 33 per cent felt shame about their mental health condition
• 32 per cent believed that they would be a burden on the team
• 61 per cent avoided talking about their mental health condition.

However, the research also found that only one per cent believed that mental health conditions are the fault of the individual. In addition, just two per cent said those with mental health conditions are a burden on others.

It’s clear that mental health stigma is a factor, but not in the way most people might expect with a significant gap between high levels of self stigma and relatively low levels of actual stigma. 

What does this mean for those working with a mental health condition?

Many people with a mental health condition believe that others have a negative feeling towards them, yet in most cases, this isn’t the reality.

Employees with a mental health condition should feel encouraged that generally, their colleagues will be very comfortable working alongside them. 

Employees, if they feel it’s right, could consider making their manager or work colleagues aware of their mental health condition. Making this decision needs careful consideration as all workplace experiences are different, as are all individuals circumstances. For those who aren’t sure if they wish to share information about their mental health condition, this Beyond Blue Disclosure Tool can assist in making the decision. 

Managers have a key role to play 

Leaders within workplaces, such as managers, have a crucial role to play. They should be active in creating an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health, if they want to.  

This involves openly demonstrating support for those working with mental health conditions and showing there’s support from the organisation more broadly. This will help to chip away at the feelings of self stigma. 
Even if an employee chooses not to disclose their condition, it is important they understand their colleagues will likely have no issue and that working with a mental health condition is not a big deal.

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