I want to share my story because I believe the public needs to be educated about mental health in order to be able to recognise that someone is struggling and to support them appropriately.
Everybody has mental health and anybody might have a mental health problem at any point in their life. It’s okay to talk about that.
I find the stigma I experienced in relation to living with Selective Mutism (SM), a communication anxiety disorder where a person is unable to talk in certain social situations in public while being able to talk normally in other situations (usually with close family at home), comes in the form of various misunderstandings.
People often erroneously take the resulting silence personally and think this person is shy, rude, stubborn, defiant, not interested or does not want to talk. But SM is not deliberate; it is not a choice to remain silent. This is a serious mental health issue and these people really want to talk. Unwanted discriminating comments about their perceived quietness, deficit in confidence and assertiveness are unfortunately also common.
The condition usually starts in early childhood and if left untreated can lead to isolation and serious mental health issues in later life.
SM affects social interactions in all areas of life and may cause difficulties with socialising in education and at work. I think attitudes and behaviours relating to mental health have changed for the better over the last 20 years but certain not well-known conditions still need more awareness. There is a lack of knowledge in the general public as well as amongst professionals, doctors, nurses, psychologists and speech and language therapists, teachers and parents.
Seeing SM merely as extreme shyness that will go away on its own is not very helpful and often deters people from seeking the support they need as early as possible. SM may also not get noticed at all or be misdiagnosed as other conditions due to lack of education.
Talking openly about mental health has helped me to deal with my challenges.
It is not a weakness or vulnerability; it actually takes courage. Furthermore, it enabled others in my community to really react well and to support me. It is important to tackle stigma and discrimination because everybody has a right to be treated fairly.
That is why our society should allow all forms of communication and, for example, make the process of making appointments, which is still usually telephone-based or the participation in meetings and group discussions more inclusive so that everyone has a chance to get involved.
As SM is frequently associated with embarrassment, shame and fear of negative judgement, sufferers may try to hide it. They may also worry about being disbelieved, ridiculed or even punished due a lack of acceptance and understanding in our society, which needs to be changed.
I would encourage others to open up about their mental health because people need to know that they are not alone and more importantly with the right help SM can be overcome.