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Stigma, shame and the power of (re)claiming our narratives

This week I found myself reflecting on the awful power of #stigma in shaming, hurting and silencing us. Maybe some of these reflections were brought about by the events that are unfolding in the world at the moment and the awful thought that often pops in: "how can humans be so cruel?" And then I wonder... is it cruelty we are looking at? Is it ignorance? Is it something bigger? The truth is, that often stigma is due to a combination of many factors that culminate in a "perfect weapon" that can hurt much more than a slap in the face.

Sometimes I find myself wondering why in 2020 we are still having to talk about #mentalhealthstigma (though not unique but most relevant to my narrative here). I am often surprised when I have conversations with family and friends and sometimes people believe mental health stigma is "a thing of the past" and then are shocked to hear stories of how real and current stigma still is for a lot of people. I guess this is part of how stigma perpetuates, as it only becomes truly evident when it hits you personally.

As a clinical psychologist I work with people who are, unfortunately, very familiar with stigma and its damage. But I am not just writing as a clinical psychologist. I am also writing as a human being who has experienced first hand the power stigma can have on our lives. (I have shared some of my story in two blog posts - if interested click here and here).

My experience of sharing my own distress as a clinical psychologist was one that was (at least initially) hit with a big wall of stigma. Stigma that created an incredibly big and powerful cloud of shame that I carried with me for a long time. I was faced with narratives that were all telling me I wasn't good enough or leaving me wondering if I should continue to practice as a clinical psychologist... as if being human made me less of a "psychologist". I tried to fight it but often felt silenced and scared that maybe I would one day realise that everyone was right and I was wrong...

Mental health professionals are often perceived as these "super-human" people who should be "always well", "always contained", "always grounded". When in fact the reality is that we, like everyone else on this planet, are just human beings trying to do our best to navigate this world we live in. The training we have, the books we read, the theories we learn, don't make us immune to experiencing distress. But the systems around us struggle to understand this, perpetuating a negative narrative around #livedexperience of mental health in mental health professionals.

I talk about narratives because they can be very powerful, especially when coming from colleagues in positions of power. It can be incredibly difficult to fight these narratives when you are already feeling “fragile” and trying to do what is best for you. But what is more powerful than all the negative narratives is the process of (re)claiming your own narrative and meaning. This can happen in different ways for different people. In my case (re)claiming my narrative meant sharing the meaning I had made of my own experiences, hearing peers sharing their experiences and finally realising that there was nothing to be ashamed of because “my only crime” was that I was human and nobody should be ashamed of that.

Sharing my story started in my own therapy journey and then moved to family, friends, trusted peers and gradually more and more widely. What I realised through this process was that the more I shared my own story, the more the negative narratives lost their power. They couldn’t hurt me anymore, because my story was out there how I wanted it to be.

So I guess what I am trying to say is:

  • To those of you who feel silenced, confused, scared. Hold tight. Things do get better. Sharing might not be an option for everyone but think about whether it might be a possibility for you to share your story somehow with someone trusted. Share your story in bits if you can’t do it all at once. Check which parts you are comfortable with sharing and which parts might need to "stay in".

  • To those of you who find themselves on the receiving end of someone sharing their story – Be open. Be curious. Believe what they are saying. If you don’t understand, then listen. Show genuine interest. Ask questions but respect the person’s right to privacy. Don’t pass judgment. Don't panic. The person is still the same person you know and they are trusting you with something incredibly personal and precious. The worst thing you can do is break that trust.

Sharing, when done safely, can be an incredibly therapeutic experience and can enable us to really understand the value of our lived experience in learning more about ourselves and others, both in our personal and professional lives. A special thank you to my friend and colleague Dr Natalie Kemp (Clinical Psychologist, founder and director of in2gr8mentalhealth Ltd) for paving the way for the sharing of many powerful narratives.

If you are interestested in knowing more about lived experience in mental health professionals, visit the in2gr8mentalhealth website.

For sources of support, click here.

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