Raise awareness of realities mental-illness sufferers face

With teen suicides at a 15-year high, and chronic eating disorders starting as early as the age of nine, the severity of mental health issues in Singapore can no longer be ignored ("Teen suicides 'highest in 15 years but overall rate falls'"; July 26, and "What's eating the young ones"; Aug 28).

However, awareness and open discussions about this continue to be elusive. Furthermore, even where awareness exists, social stigma towards mental illness has been found to be exceptionally high.

Ironically, there is a strong psychological underpinning to this social stigma against psychological disorders.

One theory describes how we attach meaning to the behaviours of others around us. One key dimension that forms our perception of a behaviour is the level of control we believe a person has over his behaviour.

People tend to assume greater levels of responsibility and blame for behaviours that are deemed to be more controllable.

Research suggests that even though in reality, a mental-illness sufferer has no more control over his condition than someone suffering from a physical illness, people believe that mental-illness sufferers have greater control over their symptoms.

Hence, mental illnesses are often misconstrued to be signs of personal weakness, and those brave enough to seek help are further ostracised.

Consequently, mental-illness sufferers tend not to seek help, or resort to harmful alternatives to deal with their condition.

Furthermore, the often-skewed portrayal of the mentally ill in the media creates a representation bias, enabling stereotypes and further exacerbating this issue.

As a society, it is imperative that we dispel the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

More effort needs to be made to correct the misconceptions about how much control a mental-illness sufferer really has over his condition.

We should also increase interaction with mental-illness sufferers, and gain a deeper understanding of each sufferer's unique condition. This prevents stereotyping and dispels overarching generalisations.

The media can be a strong ally in these efforts.

Overcoming social stigma is our joint responsibility, and it requires our combined will to bring these endeavours to fruition.

Sukriti Drabu (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Raise awareness of realities mental-illness sufferers face'. Print Edition | Subscribe