Breaking the Stigma Around What it Means to Be Human
Submitted by Dr. Judy Jaunzems-Fernuk, RTC, MTC
Have you ever heard someone talk about mental health and thought, “that has nothing to do with me”? At one time or another, I certainly have, especially when I had little understanding, or big misunderstandings, around what those two important words mean.
The fact is, the term mental health can have a bad rap, and we often link the term with other words, such as crisis or illness, which can further instill fear and even carry stigma. In this column, I’ll invite you to shift your perspective on mental health, and even your understanding of the term, to something you can and should embrace. Thinking about and attending to our mental health (and that of those we care about), supports overall well-being. Giving mental health space in a conversation can decrease the stigma that is often attached to it, and in-fact, this attention can teach us a lot, if we’re willing to dive in.
For starters, I view mental health on a continuum from illness to wellness, and regardless of whether or not a person has a diagnosis of a mental illness, or a related disorder, one can have good or bad mental health. The first piece in breaking the stigma is understanding that we all have mental health, and next, it is in knowing that at any given time we can fall ill or work to become well. Our mental health is always in flux and it changes over time with our knowledge, skills, and even attitudes towards it.
I’ll share a personal example to frame this for us. I struggle with anxiety, and there have been times in my life where my anxiety was in complete control. Despite feeling well in many other areas of my life, I felt powerless to this beast that seemed to just stop me in my tracks: getting on elevators, being on airplanes, or gathering in tight spaces with lots of people could grind me to a halt. Even doing something I love to do today, speaking in front of a room full eager listeners, could completely overwhelm me. I would find myself flooded with emotions and thought stopping fears.
When I was first diagnosed with anxiety, I denied it. I certainly would not have told even the people closest to me that battling with anxiety was a daily struggle, until I learned that ignoring it, masking it, and fighting it constantly behind closed doors was giving it more power. You see, many of the issues we have to cope and manage with – especially when it comes to things like anxiety, depression, addictions, among other mental illnesses – gain power when we hide from them.
Once I invited my anxiety to take a seat in the room, and I faced it head on (pun intended), I was able to converse with it and allow it to hold space in therapy sessions and discussions with friends and family. Over time, I found my anxiety’s power diminished. Our struggles prefer to isolate us – and it’s when they get us alone that their power can feel impossible to overcome. Perspective is imperative to overcoming mental challenges and our own perspective, though key, is often not enough to help us conquer difficult emotions or tasks.
Since facing anxiety head on, I have learned and honed many skills and practices that have helped me to manage stress and alleviate most of the symptoms of anxiety; which still creep in from time to time. What facing, and talking about, my fears has also allowed me to do is move from a level of dysfunction to function when it comes to anxiety’s power. This ability was inside me the whole time, however, it took time and attention to grow into a skill I can call upon in a crisis today. I would also argue these skills are inside most, if not all, of us – and if you’re struggling and decide to reach out for help – you might find them inside of you as well. Often times, coping with and managing illness, suffering, and struggle, is just a matter of learning, honing, and practicing skills; including honouring the power of sitting with struggle, and meeting our fears where they are.
I have had my anxiety under my control for many years now, and even though it will always be a part of me, it’s a part I embrace today. I have learned to thank anxiety for keeping me on my toes, pushing me out of my comfort zone, and allowing me to build skills that I now get to use to help others who find themselves at the suffering end of what can feel like debilitating emotions.
Today, I remind everyone, if you’re human you have mental health and working with our mental health, as opposed to fighting against it, can be a remarkable lifelong journey. The problem is, stigma can keep many from doing this and ill health prevails – causing many of us to suffer. If we rely on statistics for any reassurance of this fact, you may find it interesting to know that today, close to one in four humans struggles with a diagnosable mental illness, and, by the time we reach forty – 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness. In reality, every-single-human on the planet could face challenges regarding their mental well-being at some point in their lifetime; and so I ask, what could we learn from embracing these facts and befriending our mental health? I would also ask, what can facing these statistics, instead of running from them, teach us?
Well for starters, if we take them seriously, they can help to eliminate stigma, which – 1) prevents 70% of people globally from seeking help for their mental health; and, 2) is the reason 40% of parents admit they wouldn’t tell anyone, including a family doctor, if their child were experiencing a mental health problem . Stigma is also likely behind the reason nearly half of respondents to a 2016 survey agreed they have experienced feelings of anxiety or depression, yet never sought medical help for it. I wonder now, three years after the onset of a global pandemic, if it’s getting any better?
Despite all of that news, there is actually a ton of hope in these numbers, because they normalize the fact that life is incredibly hard – and – many of us are afraid to face that. Not feeling alone is key to coping and managing, so how do we change this?
I feel the key to changing the bleakness of mental health challenges is to learn that we actually have a lot of power over our ability to cope, manage, and even heal our mental health: we just can’t always go it alone. It can, and often does, take a village, and that’s the great thing about breaking the stigma – we come out from behind the curtain (think the wizard of Oz) and there’s actually a lot we all have in common. Honouring our pain gives us access to the village, which has always been right there, however, due to fear, or the ever-present stigma we attach to our own mental health (shame, fear, and even guilt), we can be prevented from just reaching out.
Our individual and combined healing boils down to a collective understanding and relationship to some of the facts around mental health. If we are open to gaining skills, using tools, and learning and talking about our feelings, then our ability to cope with and manage stress increases, as does our understanding of, and connection to, our emotions; which can be bossy, but not impossible to manage!
If you, or someone you love are struggling there are many places to reach out to, some of which I have listed below. If you would like to chat further or follow my own journey in continued education, counselling, and informing our community through coaching and consulting on this topic, join me on one of my many platforms where I work to break stigma and humanize the conversation around mental well-being. I can be found, most accessibly, on Instagram @drjudyjaunzemsfernuk; or you can read more formalized works and find out about services and supports on my website: www.drjudyjaunzemsfernuk.com.
For now, be well, take care of each other, and above all, know that you’re not alone! We all have mental health.
Crisis Suicide Helpline 306-525-5333
Kid’s Help Phone 1-800-668-6868
Saskatoon Community Mental Health and Addiction Services Intake Line 306-655-7777
Dr. Judy Jaunzems-Fernuk, RTC, MTC is an educator and mental health practitioner in Saskatoon and surrounding area. She teaches and conducts research at the University of Saskatchewan, and runs a private practice where she offers counselling, coaching, and consulting around all things mental health. Judy can be contacted for inquiries about individual mental health services or supports for groups, schools, community organizations, and businesses through the following:
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org – Phone or Text: 306-986-2663