Everyone at one time or another will suffer with mental health challenges. Destigmatising mental health is the first step in achieving a more understandable world.
The Stigma of Mental Health Problems
A mental health difficulty is not an illness but an understandable reaction to often very difficult life events or experiences.
When people come for therapy, they often believe that their emotional suffering is a weakness and they often feel ashamed for it. Many people still hide from others how they are struggling with their mental health for fear of negative judgement. They don’t want others to think that they are weak, crazy or different. The stigma of having a mental health difficulty is, very sadly, still a powerful discourse and a common experience in contemporary society.
The current mental health system that diagnoses psychological suffering as disorders (e.g., Major Depressive Disorder or Generalised Anxiety Disorder) also plays a role in the stigmatisation of mental health difficulties. People’s mental health struggles are further categorised as illnesses by the prescription of medication such as antidepressants as a regular 1st line of treatment upon presentation to family doctors. Although medication can sometimes be helpful for some individuals, it does not address the non-biological factors and reasons that cause and contribute to psychological suffering.
Mental health is part and parcel of each one of our lives. Similarly to physical health, our psychological wellbeing is not static and it can and it does fluctuate. We can be well, we can be unwell and we can be states in between. The state of our mental health is the product of many different factors and as adults, our role in it, is just one of the many ingredients that affect it.
When our mental health veers off into significant and persistent suffering that does not go away and impacts our day to day lives, this does not mean there is something wrong with us as people or that we are weak. How can suffering, because something or many bad things happened in our lives or were done to us, be seen as an illness or a disorder?
What Therapy Tells Us
In my experience of seeing people for therapy, it has been overwhelmingly clear that there are understandable reasons why we experience psychological distress and that this is not to do with a fault in our character or with us as people. It has equally been very rare, in my experience, that it is a result of a solely biological process, personal ‘vulnerability’ (e.g., sensitivity) or a genetic predisposition within the family. The common denominator, for the vast majority of people I have I have worked with, are difficult life experiences or events particularly in people’s early lives. And as we know, our early life environment is crucial for the trajectory that our mental, psychological and emotional development takes.
Being Human and Being Alive
The perspective that a mental health difficulty is not an illness, is not new. Some mental health service users and service user groups as well as some mental health professionals hold this view and have written about it. The importance of this perspective means that it needs to be repeated in as many forums as possible to combat stigmatisation, injustice and foster openness, support and understanding. And hopefully, we can equally support people’s understanding of their distress not as a disorder but an understandable expression of suffering and ways of coping with very stressful and difficult experiences. And at the same time help to combat shame, guilt, disconnection and isolation that go hand in hand with the stigmatisation of mental health difficulties. After all, having mental health and at times struggling with our mental health is part of being human and being alive.
You can contact Dr Fernandes or find out more about her on her website.
Dr Gisele Fernandes
Dr Gisele Fernandes is an experienced Clinical Psychologist who has worked in the field of mental health in the NHS for over 20 years. Gisele currently works mostly in private therapy practice as well as working part-time for the NHS as a clinical supervisor with Clinical Psychologists.
During her full-time employment in the NHS, Gisele worked in different capacities such as Service Manager, Interim Service Lead, Senior Clinician and Clinical Supervisor and in different services from Inpatient Psychiatric Wards to Talking Therapy Services. Over the course of her career and work, Gisele has supported many people from many backgrounds, and with different mental health difficulties, to improve their emotional and mental wellbeing. She has worked with people experiencing difficulties such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, relationship difficulties, health anxiety, social anxiety, perfectionism and anxiety/stress. Additionally, Gisele has also supported many mental health professionals and colleagues in their professional development through the provision of clinical supervision.
As a Clinical Psychologist, Gisele has a special interest in providing psychological therapy. Her main therapy approaches are: Schema Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Couple Therapy for Depression. Gisele specialises in working with people from many professional backgrounds who struggle with self-esteem and/or confidence issues and who, as a result, overachieve or self-sabotage but who want to improve the way they feel about themselves. Gisele supports her therapy clients in developing more self-acceptance and self-compassion in order to help them with significant transformations in their sense of self-worth.
Within her private practice, Gisele offers a range of services which include: one-to-one therapy, group therapy and workshops on the topics of self-worth and self confidence. In addition, she offers clinical supervision to mental health professionals. She is exceptionally keen on de-stigmatising mental health difficulties and on facilitating access to high quality information about mental health difficulties to as many people as possible.
As a clinician and as a person, Gisele values kindness, compassion, fairness and justice. Gisele has a hopeful and optimistic view of people and life. Her approach to therapy is imbued with respect and compassion for people and the difficulties that they experience. She aims to offer a space that is safe and healing to everyone she works with. Her colleagues and clients have often commented on Gisele’s professionalism and kindness. Fundamentally, Gisele’s main goal is to be deeply present and supportive to those that she works with.