Unfortunately, mental illness stigma exists. People who do not understand mental illness will sometimes make rude remarks, act in a way that indicates that they do not believe that mental illnesses are real or they may incorrectly place blame on the source of mental illness. This connection between stigma and mental illness can stem from individuals, companies, society in general or self-stigma.
The stigma surrounding mental illness should not be experienced in a modern society where the causes and effects of mental health conditions are better understood than ever before.
Mental illness stigma statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that 35% to 67% of individuals with mental health disorders believed that people are caring and sympathetic toward those with mental health conditions. Alternatively, this statistic means that 33% to 65% of people with mental health disorders feel that their condition is not understood by others. The study by the CDC also found that individuals who lived in states or areas where more money was spent on treating and addressing mental health conditions were more likely to feel that their condition was understood.
What Is Stigma?
Stigma is defined as an incorrect notion that is potentially believed by many. The effects of stigma vary but are unpleasant or unhelpful for the affected individual. Stigma could be behind a passive-aggressive remark that is designed to convey that someone does not believe mental illness is real. It could cause someone to ask why a person with a mental health condition does not shrug off their difficulties. It could even result in outright discrimination, where someone is refused a service or housing options because of their mental illness.
Stigma results from stereotypes and prejudices about mental illness. Sometimes these prejudices are conscious, with people fully aware of them, while other times they are unconscious, and people may not even be fully aware of their prejudice and the way that it affects their behaviors and social interactions.
Why Does Stigma Exist?
There are several causes of mental health stigma, but most of them are related to either cultural misconceptions of what mental illness is or misconceptions that mental illness is an invisible disease. Cultural misconceptions are one of the biggest causes of stigma. Casual phrases like, “You’re crazy,” “That’s insane,” or “They’re acting like a psycho,” are signs of unconscious stigma. Those uses of derogatory mental health terms lead to the development of societal perceptions of mental illnesses and causes those with mental illness feel viewed as unstable or crazy instead of as people with a legitimate medical condition.
The depiction of those with mental illnesses in the media has also led to an increase in the negative perception of those with mental health disorders. In shows and movies, people with mental illness are often depicted as being completely uncontrolled and violent, with tendencies to change personalities in a split second. In reality, those with mental illnesses are generally not violent and do not suddenly “snap” as is frequently depicted.
Mental health stigma is also reinforced by the fact that mental illness is not a visible disease or one that is even fully understood by modern medicine. Cancer, for example, is a disease involving multiplying cells that cause tumors that can kill you. That understanding makes people sympathetic to those who have cancer. For mental illness, however, even many healthcare professionals do not understand how chemical imbalances in the brain can lead to a disconnect from reality or thought disturbances. This lack of understanding about what mental illnesses are and what causes them leads society to be less sympathetic to those who have mental illnesses.
Another potential cause for the stigma associated with mental illness is that mental illnesses — especially ones that are left untreated — can lead to difficulties maintaining a normal lifestyle. This can lead some with mental illnesses to homelessness or to trouble maintaining employment, both situations that are often looked down on by society. This can lead people to connect mental illness with lower positions in society, in turn creating more stigma.
Types of Stigma
There are several different types of stigma including prejudices, stereotypes or discrimination, to name a few. The stigma involving mental illness stems from two main sources: the social stigma from outside influences (e.g., the media) and self-stigma from the individual subscribing to misconceptions about their own mental health.
Unfortunately, the social stigma of mental illness is common. A good way to describe social stigma relating to mental health is that social stigma is the preconceptions or biases of society toward those with mental health disorders. Some social stigma examples include people assuming that a locally-known homeless person has a mental illness based solely on the fact that they are homeless. Social stigma makes it difficult for those who already have a health problem to obtain the support and understanding that they need from society.
Self-stigma is an internalized stigma that someone believes about themselves. This type of stigma can be more harmful than social stigma, as it is more difficult to dismiss and more likely to affect someone’s actions. The connection between self-stigma and mental illness is often due to the internalization of societal stigma or due to the stigma that existed before the mental illness developed. This can lead those with mental illness to truly believe that their condition is because they are weak or because they are not trying hard enough. This belief leads those with mental illnesses to approach or treat their mental illness incorrectly and can lead to increased psychological harm.
Effects of Stigma
The negative effects of stigma towards those with mental health disorders include the reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudices that stigma creates. Some of the negative effects of stigma on those with mental health disorders include:
- Bullying. Someone with a mental illness is treated in a way that is demeaning and designed to physically or emotionally intimidate or cause harm.
- Lack of understanding. Someone’s illness is misunderstood or not understood. A lack of understanding can be either deliberate or unintentional.
- Difficulty finding work. Those with mental illnesses are unfairly discriminated against in the hiring process or are unjustly terminated from employment based on a mental health condition.
- Housing discrimination. People with mental health disorders are denied housing because of fear about their potential behavior or stigma about how they will act as a tenant.
- Reluctance to seek treatment. Those with mental health disorders may delay seeking treatment because of fear of stigmatization.
How to Cope with Stigma
Coping with the stigma of mental illness can be difficult and can lead to negative outcomes. Those who experience stigma from society can be more likely to accept it and internalize that stigma; this will lead them to experience long-term negative effects and may complicate their illness. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with stigma and avoid accepting the pressure of society. Ways people can cope with mental health stigma include:
- Join a support group. Mental illness support groups can be very helpful to those combating stigma. Being in a group with people who face similar struggles can create a sense of community and help to avoid isolation. It can also be encouraging to hear how others cope with stigma and can provide a way to find new methods of addressing mental health stigma.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Allowing stigma to create a barrier between you and the rest of society is unhealthy and can lead to a worsening of your mental health, as well as the increased likelihood that you will internalize negative stigma. While you should avoid relationships with those who hold on to prejudices or biases, you should still seek out support from those who can truly support you.
- Speak out against stigma. Speaking out against stigma creates two benefits. First, it helps to educate society on the difficulties that those with mental illnesses face and helps to reduce the stigma that exists in society. Second, the act of speaking out against stigma helps people combat stigma personally and reduces the likelihood that you will internalize stigma and develop a self-stigma.
Tips For Fighting Stigma
It is important for people to fight the stigma that they encounter and help with reducing the stigma of mental illness. While it may not seem possible to end the stigma of mental illness, fighting against it wherever it is observed will help to, at the very least, reduce this stigma and help those in society who are struggling with mental illness.
- Talk openly about mental health. Not talking about mental illness feeds into the stigma against it and accepts the premise that mental illness is something to be embarrassed about. Speaking openly about mental health can help people become more familiar with it and more comfortable with discussing it.
- Educate yourself and others. Learning about mental health will help you to be able to counter uninformed feelings with facts and can help you to better teach others about the difficulties of mental health disorders.
- Challenge Misconceptions. There are many myths about mental illness that exist in society. These myths will continue to exist unless they are challenged. By challenging the misconceptions that people have about mental illness, stigma can be reduced.
- Be conscious of language. Using non-stigmatizing language is very important when fighting mental health stigma. When someone uses terms such as “crazy” or “insane” in normal conversation, you can point out the stigmatization that such language creates and how it impacts those with mental illnesses.
- Show compassion for those suffering. Those with mental illnesses need compassion, not ridicule. Show compassion and try to listen. It may not be possible to fully understand what another person’s mental illness is like, but trying to understand will help them.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. People like to draw a clear distinction between mental illness vs. physical illness. But in reality, mental illnesses are the result of changes in the chemicals in the brain. If we treated mental illness like physical illnesses it could encourage people to understand that mental illness is actually a disease and not just a behavior.
- Sign the StigmaFree Pledge. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) encourages everyone to sign a stigma-free pledge to show their commitment to avoiding stigma. By signing the NAMI stigma-free pledge people can show their commitment to being stigma-free.
Additional Resources on Breaking the Stigma
Several additional resources can help with breaking the stigma of mental illness:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has resources that include information on how to confront stigma.
- The Mental Health Foundation is another resource that speaks about stigma and provides factual information about mental illness.
Other websites that specifically address stigma in mental health include Mental Health First Aid, Break the Stigma and Make It Ok. In addition to these online resources, your psychiatrist and any local mental health organizations should be able to provide you with more information about stigma in mental illness and how to confront it.
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Greenstein, Laura. “9 Ways To Fight Mental Health Stigma.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness, October 11, 2017. Accessed June 12, 2017.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Attitudes Toward Mental Illness.” 2012. Accessed June 12, 2017.
Corrigan, Patrick; Watson, Amy. “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness.” World Psychiatry, February 2002. Accessed June 12, 2017.
Borchard, Therese J. “5 Reliable Ways to Deal With Mental Health Stigma, Prejudice.” Psych Central. July 8, 2018. Accessed June 12, 2017.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Find Support.” 2019. Accessed June 12, 2017.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Stigma Free.” 2019. Accessed June 12, 2017.