The stigma of help-seeking

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By Casey Niebuhr |

About a year ago, I was standing at a landing with a guy I had considerable feelings for, arguing about our relationship. In this gross back-and-forth of ad hominem attacks, he looked at me with a concerned face and said ‘you need help.’

I lowered myself to his eye level and, in perhaps the calmest voice I’ve ever used, in that you-have-no-idea-what-you’ve-done tone, I said ‘never tell another person what you think they need.’

My biggest peeve about his commanding suggestion was that, in a world where seeking help has a cursed stigma attached, he didn’t understand.

I had sought professional help before, and after numerous consultations with different specialists, I had become overwhelmed with the sense that there was no alternative option to coming to terms with my internal problems than to just keep it contained and handle it at another time. I was overcome with the fear of the stigma—that ever so immobilizing fear that causes a dry throat, and makes you choke like you’re being caught in barbed wire.

Stigma, in a general sense, can mean any type of rejection an individual receives from society due to their appearance or their behavior. The rejection is rooted in a divergence of a societal norm, whether it may be considered dangerous or simply unacceptable. That grey zone of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ is where so many of us get caught—that No Man’s Land of what lies outside of our control.

With stigma, there comes two barriers, or obstacles, one must maneuver: stigma of the public and stigma of self.

The public stigma that I had feared was the stigma that is generally associated with seeking professional help. I’ve often felt that my problems weren’t important enough to merit seeking a psychological service like counseling or therapy. There is a sense of, for lack of a better word, disgrace—stamped right on the forehead. That’s why so many hide their AA meetings, marriage counseling, whatever they’re doing.

The issue concerned here is focused not on one’s privacy of their mental health but the shame it brings. How one decided to live their life is no one else’s business, that is true, but there is a sense of guilt that accompanies professional help; an urgency to explain.

Self-stigma focuses on the guilt and the privacy of seeking mental help. It is the internalization of such labels where one begins to invalidate their mental health. The thought of seeking professional services, at that time, threatened my confidence, my independency, and my worth.

It is the stigma of oneself that, in my experience, is the hardest to overcome. The virtue of not caring about public opinion is not innate, it’s something you grow into. Not caring about yourself, in the sense of critical awareness, is the disease of which we all suffer.

To self-stigma, I say the words of my past professor, who, as they stood in a room full of their peers and recalled the alcoholism of their spouse, declared that “Being human is the bravest thing that we could ever do. We experience so much; loss, pain, suffering—it takes courage.” Too often do we lose light of our own humanity.

The stigma of help-seeking can be addressed three ways: objection, education, and communication.

We, as members of society, should object the objection of help-seeking. Social norms are constantly changing, and the power of such a change is reliant on the mindset of a community. Normalizing the ‘abnormal’ has been the foundation of humanization.

Education is essential to understanding the benefits of seeking a professional consultation and the risks of rejecting it. Let this be a reminder that your mental health is valid, and you deserve to invest in what’s best for you. Contact any service you can, and simply ask about your concerns.

Perhaps the most important, communication is the foundation of prevention. Being honest about oneself, honest about one’s thoughts. Reach out to friends, loved ones, and perhaps a stranger. Our lives are all worth the time.

I unknowingly followed these three points and have traced my actions to these concepts. It has worked for me, and I got the help that I needed, and acknowledged the troubles I was experiencing.

We are not defined by our mental diagnoses, but instead the guiding principles in which we choose to experience life. Seeking help when we need it is just one of the many outlets.

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