Mental health stigma refers to the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discriminatory beliefs held by individuals or society as a whole toward those experiencing mental health issues.
It often leads to the marginalization, exclusion, or mistreatment of individuals with mental health conditions, preventing them from seeking help and support.
Nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. One of the most harmful stereotypes is the assumption that people with mental illnesses are inherently dangerous.
This unfounded belief often leads to fear and avoidance of individuals with mental health issues. In reality, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
Some misconceptions suggest that mental illness is a sign of personal weakness or a lack of willpower. This stereotype places blame on the individual, making it difficult for them to seek help without feeling shame or guilt. Another misconception is that mental illnesses are incurable or untreatable. This false belief discourages individuals from seeking treatment, as they may feel hopeless about their prospects for recovery.
Friends and family sometimes tell individuals with mental health conditions to “snap out of it” or “just think positively.” These statements reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness, which cannot be overcome through sheer willpower or positive thinking alone.
Another harmful stereotype that people with mental health conditions are simply seeking attention or exaggerating their struggles. This misunderstanding dismisses the genuine suffering of individuals and discourages them from opening up about their experiences. The stigma often leads to delays in seeking help.
Individuals may wait until their condition has significantly deteriorated before seeking treatment, making recovery more challenging. It can isolate individuals with mental health conditions, as they may fear judgment or rejection from family, friends, or colleagues.
This isolation exacerbates feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. There is a common misconception that mental illness is contagious, and being in proximity to someone with a mental health condition may cause one to develop similar symptoms. This fear can lead to isolation and avoidance of individuals with mental health challenges.
Stigmatizing beliefs also damage an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth. They may internalize negative stereotypes, leading to feelings of shame and inadequacy. Untreated mental health conditions can lead to a reduced quality of life. Individuals may struggle to maintain relationships, hold down jobs, or engage in daily activities. Due to the fear of stigma, many individuals conceal their mental health issues and do not seek professional help.
This results in underreporting of the true prevalence of mental illnesses. Mental health stigma has a broader societal impact, contributing to reduced productivity and increased healthcare costs. When individuals avoid seeking help, the economic burden of untreated mental illness rises.
Ghanaian culture often emphasizes collectivism, where community and family are highly valued. This can create pressure for individuals to conform and maintain a façade of mental well-being, as admitting to mental health challenges may be seen as a failure to fulfil societal expectations. Spirituality plays a significant role in Ghanaian culture, and religious beliefs can strongly influence interpretations of mental health conditions.
Some may perceive mental health issues as spiritual problems or punishments from deities, leading to misconceptions that hinder proper treatment. We have a rich tradition of herbal medicine and traditional healing practices. While these can be beneficial, they may also intersect with superstitions and misconceptions about mental health, diverting individuals from seeking evidence-based psychiatric care.
Family and community support are pivotal in challenging and dismantling mental health stigma in Ghana. Individuals with mental health conditions often experience isolation and discrimination. Family and community support can provide a crucial buffer against this isolation by fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance. Family members and friends who offer understanding, empathy, and encouragement can significantly improve an individual’s mental well-being. Living with a mental health condition can be emotionally challenging.
When families and communities actively support individuals with mental health conditions, they become allies in dispelling misconceptions and combating stigma. They can challenge harmful stereotypes and educate others about the realities of mental health. When individuals feel supported, they are more likely to seek professional help when needed. Knowing that their loved ones will stand by them can alleviate the fear of stigma. Inclusive communities send a powerful message that mental health conditions are not a source of shame. They create an environment where individuals feel safe to discuss their challenges and seek help without judgment.
Traditional notions of masculinity can discourage men from expressing vulnerability or seeking help for mental health issues. community support can challenge these norms and promote healthier expressions of masculinity. In addition to emotional support, families and communities can provide practical assistance, such as accompanying individuals to medical appointments, helping with daily tasks, and advocating for their rights within the healthcare system.
Families and communities can play a vital role in raising awareness about mental health and advocating for change. They can organize events, workshops, and discussions to challenge stigma at the grassroots level. A supportive environment can contribute to an individual’s resilience in coping with mental health challenges. Resilience can be a powerful factor in overcoming stigma and achieving recovery.
At Zomujo Foundation, we have initiated high schools and university-based programs to address stigma and promote mental health awareness. We conduct workshops and community discussions to educate people about mental health and encourage open conversations. We have also trained persons with lived experience to become peer counsellors. These peer counsellors share their stories, engage in conversations, and challenge stereotypes, effectively reducing stigma.
Consider offering your time and skills to mental health organizations or community support groups. Volunteering is a direct way to make a positive impact and support those facing mental health challenges in your community. Become a champion for mental health awareness. Attend or organize awareness events, workshops, or seminars to stay informed and help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
Participate in fundraising efforts to provide essential resources for mental health programs and services. If you have personal experiences or expertise related to mental health, consider offering mentorship or support to individuals in need. Empower yourself to take the initiative and be a catalyst for positive change, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive, empathetic, and understanding society that prioritizes mental well-being.
Writer: Dr. Teata Duut | Executive Director, Zomujo Foundation