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It’s taken a while, but we’re waking up to the fact the prejudice is unacceptable. Race, gender, sexuality are all protected by law – and rightly so - from discrimination.

So it surprises me that there is still such stigma attached to mental health issues, and so little sign of changing awareness. Harassed doctors, lacking the time and specialist knowledge to do otherwise, hand out anti-depressants as if they can be a solo “cure”. Waiting lists to see a mental health professional for therapy are long. People who develop symptoms and don’t know “what’s wrong with them” are afraid or embarrassed to discuss things with family, friends or colleagues. And people who have been diagnosed with a particular condition are marginalized and misunderstood.

We’d never fear to tell someone that we had a cold, a broken leg, cancer, in case this led to us being discriminated against – so why, given that we’ve got as little choice about having a mental illness as a physical one, is there such a difference in attitude? I believe it’s because most mental health problems have traditionally been swept under the carpet, and so we’ve not had chance to integrate and accept them. Like most prejudices, the basis is fear, difference and a lack of understanding.

It’s time we started to talk about mental illness more openly; because greater understanding reduces assumptions and increases acceptance. Here are five things that you may not know about mental health issues.

Don’t Think It Can’t Happen To Anyone

At some time in their lives, 6 out of 10 people in the western world may suffer from anxiety or depression, the two most common mental health problems among people aged 18 to 55. That means that even if you ‘re lucky enough never to have to deal with this yourself, chances are that someone you know will. Mental health problems are not something that happen just to “other people”.

There’s Enough To Cope With, Stop Adding To It

It can be tough enough dealing with the fallout from a mental health problem – trying to keep your act together and to move on with your life – without also trying to deal with suspicion, aggression and ridicule. We all want to feel in control of our lives, and to feel that we have support when we need it. Depending on the condition, it can be hard to carry on as normal. And while some conditions may go away, some are there for life; that means that the person experiencing that condition must work their life plans around it. Don’t make things harder for them. Why not speak to them and try to understand how they experience the world? If you take the time, many of the things they do may make more sense to you.

That Said – There Can Actually Be Some Benefits!

Yes, really! We’re all too aware of the down sides, but what about the positives? For example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can lead to huge bursts of energy and creativity. Bipolar Disorder (formerly manic depression) can support an individual to pursue and achieve goals, while also boosting leadership skills. Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition at the high end of the autism spectrum, can give a high level of focus and attention to detail. However, we tend to look at the negatives of these conditions, and to dismiss the positives – because these different ways of thinking are not considered “normative”.

What the Heck Is Normative Anyway?

“Normative” behavior is how we’re “meant” to act. It’s a theoretical ideal that doesn’t exist in the real world. We all have a combination of traits, to a greater or lesser degree. This means that we’re all different; there is no “normal” person to live up to, and no “normal” standard against which we should be found wanting. It also means that you’ve probably got some of those traits that are listed as causes of diagnosis for one or more mental health problems – just not in a sufficient number, or of sufficient severity, to be diagnosed with the condition.

Let me give you an example. Are you telling me that you’ve never been sad or stressed in your life? No, of course you’re not. And what are depression and anxiety, but stress and sadness that have got out of hand, to the point where they are too much to deal with? The problem is not the condition. The problem is the ability to deal with it and be able to live the life we want. And labelling people as outside of the norm is not helpful to that.

Understanding And Support – The Only Answers

We really need to ditch the stigma, and we need to start right now. We need to start by understanding the experience of the person with the condition, and by stopping treating it like it’s something to be feared. We need to work on helping people to celebrate the positives in the condition, and to deal with the negatives. We need to encourage a climate of openness and honesty, and we need to stop maximizing the differences of those who are “different.” Because “different” does not mean “wrong”. It just means different. And of course – we all are.

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