A recent survey by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), revealed that “one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mood, anxiety or alcohol use disorder in their lifetime”.
The study further highlights the existing problem of a “treatment gap”, in which the majority of people suffering from such mental health issues did not seek professional treatment. According to the study, this could be due to two reasons. First, the failure to recognise the symptoms and second, the stigma around mental health issues.
The results suggest that although having a mental health condition is not uncommon in Singapore, it unfortunately remains a misunderstood and taboo subject.
Stigma around mental health issues
It’s all your fault
Stigma can take many forms. How many of us have heard dismissive statements in response to being open with our feelings? These include statements such as “you’re always so negative”, “Don’t be such an attention-seeker” or “you wouldn’t be in this situation if you [had or hadn’t done something]”?
Such statements unwittingly place the blame for a mental health issue on the person experiencing it. They do not acknowledge the various biological, social and economic factors that influence mental health.
In fact, the 2017 Attitude Survey conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) showed that “six in ten believe that mental health conditions are caused by a lack of self-discipline and willpower”.
Indeed, stigma around mental health issues often stems from a lack of awareness on how they come about.
The truth about mental health
Mental health issues are rarely due to the “lack of self-discipline” or because those individuals are “weak” as commonly believed (Institute of Mental Health, 2015). At the same time, the fear of being judged and being discriminated against can obstruct one’s road to recovery (Yang, 2007).
Often stigma results in someone refusing or delaying treatment. Things that could have been resolved easily and quickly with early interventions often become buried deep in inner vaults guarded by shame and guilt.
What we can do about it
Choose your words wisely
As with most things, it begins with small steps. These can include being mindful of things we say casually.
The constant description of others as “crazy”, “gila”, “siao” or “psychotic” tend to imbue these words with negative stereotyping and often result in social distancing. A study published in 2017 revealed that among Singaporean youth, 44.5% of the respondents associated pejorative words and phrases with mental illness (Pang et. al, 2017).
Another example is making statements such as “I was so embarrassed, I wanted to kill myself” which could be triggering for those battling with depression if overheard unintentionally.
Avoid defining people by their experiences
Language plays an important part in both stigmatising and destigmatising mental illness. Next time, instead of saying “she’s depressed”, try “she felt down” or “she had a depressive episode”.
This separates the illness from the individual, reminding them that they are bigger than their emotions or mental state.
Being more accepting
Acceptance also plays a huge role in removing prejudices. One way to show acceptance is to emotionally validate our peers or loved ones when they come to us with problems.
Invalidation occurs when we tell other people to “not think about it anymore” or to “not be sad”.
By normalising sadness and anxiety, people will feel more understood and accepted. For example, instead of saying “don’t think about it”, try saying “it’s normal to feel anxious about having to present!”
This would encourage them to talk about their feelings, which would lead to improved mental well-being as they are better able to cope.
Diong Zoe Yi is an intern with Talk Your Heart Out. She is currently a final year student at the National University of Singapore, pursuing her Bachelors of Arts with a major in Psychology, and minor in Communications and New Media.
Institute of Mental Health. (2015, Oct 6). IMH’s National Mental Health Literacy Study Shows Dementia, Alcohol Abuse and Depression are the Most Recognisable Among Common Mental Disorders. [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.imh.com.sg
National Council of Social Services. (2018, October 30). NCSS Study Reveals That Workplace Adjustments In Companies Will Address Barriers to Hiring Mental Health Conditions [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.ncss.gov.sg/Press-Room/National-Council-of-Social-Service/Press-Releases/Detail-Page?id=NCSS-Launches-First-Nation-Wide-Campaign-to-Fight
Teater, B. (2013). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Work, 4th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell
Yang, L.H. (2007). Application of mental illness stigma theory to Chinese societies: synthesis and new directions. Singapore Medical Journal, 48(11), pp. 977-985. http://www.smj.org.sg/article/application-mental-illness-stigma-theory-chinese-societies-synthesis-and-new-direction
Pang, S. Liu J., Mahesh M., et. al (2017). Stigma among Singaporean youth: a cross-sectional study on adolescent attitudes towards serious mental illness and social tolerance in a multiethnic population. BMJ Open, 7(10). DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016432