Stigma and discrimination in mental health

Publication Date: December 14, 2022

Despite the remarkable progress and development of our times in terms of social justice, and despite all the tireless efforts made to achieve equality and encourage acceptance of one another, we still encounter in our societies many biases and misconceptions regarding mental health conditions. These misconceptions and unacceptable attitudes towards mental health create discrimination towards those suffering from mental conditions.

Stigma (or literally “dishonor”) is when someone sees you in a negative light because of your mental condition whereas discrimination is when someone treats you differently because of your mental condition.

The stigma associated with mental condition and its harmful effects is divided into two main parts: personal stigma and social stigma.

Personal stigma refers to stigma that can diminish self-esteem, may leads to feelings of shame, hopelessness and social isolation. It may also lead to self-doubt; the belief that the individual will never overcome his or her condition nor achieve what they aspire in life.

Hence, the patient may become reluctant to admit that he or she are suffering out of fear of being labeled and which creates an artificial divide between the “normal” and “abnormal”. 

Social stigma on the other hand can be more debilitating and can make mental health conditions worse and even stop an individual from seeking the help they need.  Social stigma can look like a lack of understanding by family, friends, or peers; violence or harassment, or even depriving individuals of social opportunities such employment, friendships, or marriages. 

Virtually everyone knows someone suffering from a mental condition, whether it’s a common condition such as depression, anxiety, or more serious conditions such as addiction or schizophrenia, all these conditions affect the same areas of the brain by varying degrees and consequently our cognition, perception, and emotional functioning. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that approximately 20% of the world’s population suffers from a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. That’s 1 billion people worldwide, and yet up until few years ago, having a therapist or going to therapy was considered odd and even frowned upon. 

However, these negative views associated with psychological help have lessened fast and accelerated by COVID-19 which placed a hefty psychological burden on every single one of us. In October 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that around 70% of countries have now adopted ‘tele-therapy’—therapy sessions via audio or video conferencing to overcome the limitations imposed by in-person therapy. Since then, online therapy has become more accessible, convenient, and less stigmatized. Given the benefits to both clients and clinicians, online mental health services will remain long after COVID-19 social distancing restrictions are lifted. 

Decades of research have shown that online mental health service is as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy. For example, the familiar comforts of home can be especially helpful for people with anxiety or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Additionally, online mental health services provides access for individuals that are home-bound with disabilities, live in rural areas, or do not have access to any means of transportation. Other benefits include promoted privacy and security, where individuals can connect with their therapist at their own convenience and from the comfort of their home.

Like in many parts of the world, one of the main barriers to accessing mental health services in MENA is stigma. Apprehensive attitudes and a lack of awareness in tightly-knit environments that sacrifice individuality for the collective, can cause individuals to be stigmatized for seeking psychological services. However, with the pandemic inadvertently accelerating the move towards online services, the problem of being spotted walking into a mental health clinic is eliminated and hence serving to put an end to stigma around mental condition and alleviate unnecessary suffering. 

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