WHY IS THERE A STIGMA AGAINST SEEKING OUT MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES?
This is a complex question and is therefore one without a simple answer. However, I think part of it has to do with our larger Western sociocultural and individualist assumptions regarding how we ought to think, act, and feel. These assumptions place implicit value on self-independence, personal (versus collective) achievements, and communication styles that value rational thinking (versus emotions). A common myth within our Western worldview is that the self-reliant person possesses individual integrity and strength of character, and that it is the ideal personality style that we should model ourselves after. This view implicitly suggests that to lean on others, or to ask for support or help, would be a sign of weakness. It is not uncommon, for example, for clients to describe feeling somehow "weak" by coming to therapy, or by allowing themselves to express emotion in our sessions.
However these values of stoic self-reliance are simply part of a set of assumptive cultural myths that readily fall apart upon critical examination. Before exploring them, let us first define mental health. In my estimation, a mentally healthy person is someone who can think, act, and feel, in ways that are open and flexible. If an individual has these qualities, they are in my view adaptive human beings. From this perspective, a person who suppresses or minimizes emotion and who avoids reliance on others is not strong, but is rather psychologically inflexible, fragile, and arguably (and somewhat ironically) "weak." A person that deals with psychological stressors through stoic independence, and by suppressing their subjective feelings, is not a person who is thriving, but someone who is merely coping. It is therefore not a psychological style to be admired or to aspire to, but rather one more deserving of pity, and a style of coping that ought to be avoided when at all possible.
Outdated Attitudes and Values
So where do these values come from and why have they persisted? I think they can be partly explained as a carryover from previous generations when emphasis on "coping" would have been more important. It goes without saying that as a whole, previous generations suffered more hardships than most of us are accustomed to. Going back a few generations, the standard of living was much lower and poverty was often a real possibility or an actual reality. A great deal of time and energy was placed on being able to physically provide for one's family - to simply put food on the table and shelter over one's head. Previous generations also had to deal with the physical and psychological impact of World Wars; family members who went away would seldom come back the same - many returned psychologically damaged, emotionally hardened, or struggling with addictions in an effort to cope.
In comparison to the current generation, the previous generations largely endured greater hardships, where the focus of day-to-day life was in many cases simply putting one foot in-front of the other in an effort to cope, carry on, or get by. In this light, we can understand how the capacity to be stoic, self-reliant, and to be able to "cope," would have been seen as a virtue. In many cases these parents would have implicitly taught their children, as they might have been taught themselves, or as they have learned through necessity, to be "strong" - which seemingly translates into being self-reliant, stoic, and emotionally reserved. All of these attitudes would naturally seep into the moving fabric of our larger cultures, which may partly explain the cultural resistance to expressing emotional vulnerability and seeking psychological or social support.
On a positive note, it seems to me that the old attitudes are in fact showing signs of changing. In larger metropolitan areas such as Toronto, people tend to be more open about admitting that they have been in therapy or that they have struggled with mental illness. In even larger cities such as New York, it would not be uncommon to even hear someone talk to a friend about their therapeutic progress or their impressions of therapy. As Maritimers we can do our part to further loosen the stigma by making it okay to admit that people will struggle at various points in life - we are only human after all. By seeking out support when we need it, we are not exhibiting weakness but strength - in being able to address our issues head on, while building the resilience we need to live fulfilling lives.