For millennia, humans have struggled to understand mental illness. In spite of scientific advances which allow us to identify regions of the brain responsible for many processes, we remain in awe of the diversity and subjectivity of such experiences and conditions. If industrialised societies have become materially sophisticated, there is still extensive stigma attached to human diversity, including that related to mental health, despite this diversity being inherent to nature.
We humans have evolved from simple to complex biological beings, living in increasingly large and diverse societies. As this human complexity grows, so, inevitably, does the diversity of individual experience within these groups. Here lies a paradox: for a social group to survive and minimise chaos, agreed rules and regulations are necessary. These reflect the values and beliefs of the larger group and change over time but those who reject, rebel against or are unable to respond effectively to the accepted norm, will be stigmatised and either marginalised, persecuted or forced into acceptance. Fear, isolation and anxiety underpin these processes.
We can trace the concept of stigma can back to Ancient Greece when a person who had contravened the rules was physically marked out from the rest. Today’s form of stigmatisation may be more subtle, but it retains the same negative association it had in the past. One indicator of stigma is the language used to describe the person who deviates from the social norm. Terms used to describe those who deviate are usually pejorative and some have become politically unacceptable (Yoganathan, N. 2015). Some evidence from recent empirical studies regarding feelings and experiences as a result of the stigma of mental illness is strikingly similar to evidence from similar studies conducted a decade ago (Howe et al., 2014; Dinos et al., 2004).
So, can we really dispel the stigma associated with mental illness without dispelling a number of other stigmas, too? How can we reduce feelings and experiences of stigma associated with mental illness on the one hand if there is stigma experienced by possessing another stigmatised identity, e.g. gender or race related, on the other hand? Our work over the last twenty years has sought to educate the general public about the impact of stigma on someone’s life. We work from the individual level, confronting our own often unconscious prejudices, in our aim to bring greater understanding on the part of individuals, effecting change from the roots of society upwards.
Education provides the link to our second focus: personal wellbeing. We believe that self-awareness enables us to take responsibility for our health, and that we have a duty of responsibility to our communities (small and large groups). Why is this so important in the 21st century?
The global population is expected to rise from 7.6 billion to 10 billion by 2056. Life expectancy is increasing, causing demographic adjustments which challenge both individuals seeking to optimise their life span, and policy makers who must determine priorities for the use of finite resources. At the same time, globalisation and migration are eroding the once-staunch distinctions between cultures and identities, potentially threatening individual and social values, and contributing to mental illness. In this period of unprecedented change, it is even more essential for us to make informed lifestyle choices that support personal wellbeing. By taking responsibility for our choices, we exercise social responsibility.
Kingston Wellbeing has a special interest in stigma related to mental illness, the perverse impact of language on our response to diversity and difference, and the group processes involved in addressing prejudice.