The Stigma of Mental Illness

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness

False beliefs about mental illness can cause significant problems. Learn what you can do about stigma.

Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a
distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a
disadvantage (a negative stereotype). Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs
toward people who have a mental health condition are common.

Mental health stigma refers to societal disapproval, or when society places shame on people who live with a mental illness or seek help for emotional distress, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, nearly 9 out of 10 people with a mental illness feel stigma and discrimination negatively impact their lives. They also state that those with a mental health issue are among the least likely of any group with a long-term health condition or disability to find work, be in long-term relationships, live in good housing, and be socially included in mainstream society.
The pressure of mental health stigma can come from family, friends, coworkers, and society on a broader level. Groups can also politicize stigma. It can prevent people living with mental illness from getting help, fitting into society, and leading happy and comfortable lives.

Mental health stigma can come from stereotypes, which are simplified or generalized beliefs or representations of entire groups of people that are often inaccurate, negative, and offensive. They allow a person to make quick judgments about others based on a few defining characteristics, which they then apply to anyone in that group.

For instance, people living with depression are often stereotyped as lazy, while some judge those with anxiety as cowardly.

Many people fear being labeled “crazy” for simply seeking support from a therapist. None of these characterizations are valid, and all of them are misinformed, cause pain, and prevent people from getting the help they need.

An often politicized stereotype about people with mental illness is that they are violent or dangerous. However, a small minority of people living with mental illness commit violent acts. They are actually 10 times more likely to be victims of a crime, making them a vulnerable population we should be protecting instead of fearing.

Many people with serious mental illness are challenged doubly. On one hand, they
struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease. On the other, they are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness. As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people. Although research has gone far to understand the impact of the disease, it has only recently begun to explain stigma in mental illness. Much work yet needs to be done to fully understand the breadth and scope of prejudice against people with mental illness.

Fortunately, social psychologists and sociologists have been studying phenomena related to stigma in other minority groups for several decades.

Stigma can lead to discrimination. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding you because the person assumes you could be unstable, violent or dangerous due to your mental illness. You may even judge yourself.

Stigmas about mental illness seem to be widely endorsed by the general public in the Western world. Studies suggest that the majority of citizens in the United States and many Western European nations have stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness. Furthermore, stigmatizing views about mental illness are not limited to uninformed members of the general public; even well-trained professionals from most mental health disciplines subscribe to stereotypes about mental illness.

Several themes describe misconceptions about mental illness and corresponding
stigmatizing attitudes. Media analyses of film and print have identified three: people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared; they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled; or they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character. Results of two independent factor analyses of the survey responses of more than 2000 English and American citizens parallel these findings:

a. fear and exclusion: persons with severe mental illness should be feared and,
therefore, be kept out of most communities;

b. authoritarianism: persons with severe mental illness are irresponsible, so life
decisions should be made by others;

c. benevolence: persons with severe mental illness are childlike and need to be cared for.

Although stigmatizing attitudes are not limited to mental illness, the public seems to disapprove persons with psychiatric disabilities significantly more than persons with related conditions such as physical illness. Severe mental illness has been likened to drug addiction, prostitution, and criminality. Unlike physical disabilities, persons with mental illness are perceived by the public to be in control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them. Furthermore, research respondents are less likely to pity persons with mental illness, instead reacting to psychiatric disability with anger and believing that help is not deserved.

Previous studies have shown that the public will withhold help to some minority groups because of corresponding stigma. A more extreme form of this behavior is social avoidance, where the public strives to not interact with people with mental illness altogether. The 1996 General Social Survey (GSS), in which the Mac Arthur Mental Health Module was administered to a probability sample of 1444 adults in the United States, found that more than a half of respondents are unwilling to: spend an evening socializing, work next to, or have a family member marry a person with mental illness.

Social avoidance is not just self-report; it is also a reality. Research has shown that
stigma has a deleterious impact on obtaining good jobs and leasing safe housing.

Stigma against a person living with a mental health condition can make their symptoms worse and make it hard to recover. A person may also be less likely to seek help if they live with stigma. Stigma may not be obvious or be expressed in large gestures. It can come in the words people use to describe a mental health condition or people living with mental illness. This can involve hurtful, offensive, or dismissive language, which can be upsetting for people to hear. This can cause them to feel alone and that no-one understands what they are going through.

Some of the harmful effects of stigma can include:
• internalization of negative beliefs
• social isolation
• low self-esteem
• hopelessness
• shame
• avoiding treatment
• worsening symptoms
• lack of criminal justice
• discrimination at work
• lack of adequate health insurance coverage
• bullying, physical violence
• lack of affordable housing

Steps to cope with stigma

Here are some ways you can deal with stigma:

• Get treatment. You may be reluctant to admit you need treatment. Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Treatment can provide relief by identifying what’s wrong and reducing symptoms that interfere with your work and personal life.
• Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Stigma doesn’t just come from
others. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal
weakness or that you should be able to control it without help. Seeking counseling,
educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others who have
mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-
• Don’t isolate yourself. If you have a mental illness, you may be reluctant to tell
anyone about it. Your family, friends, clergy or members of your community can
offer you support if they know about your mental illness. Reach out to people you
trust for the compassion, support and understanding you need.
• Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of
saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a
schizophrenic,” say “I have schizophrenia.”
• Join a support group. Some local and national groups, such as the National
Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), offer local programs and internet resources that
help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their families and
the general public. Some state and federal agencies and programs, such as those
that focus on vocational rehabilitation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), offer support for people with mental illness.
• Get help at school. If you or your child has a mental illness that affects learning,
find out what plans and programs might help. Discrimination against students
because of a mental illness is against the law, and educators at primary, secondary
and college levels are required to accommodate students as best they can. Talk to
teachers, professors or administrators about the best approach and resources. If a
teacher doesn’t know about a student’s disability, it can lead to discrimination,
barriers to learning and poor grades.
• Speak out against stigma. Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters
to the editor or on the internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar
challenges and educate the public about mental illness.

Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than
information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.

Stigma is a complex issue that is well-documented but challenging to overcome. However, there are steps that a person facing mental health stigma can take, such as finding an advocate who can support them with work issues and financial matters. They can also educate others by sharing their stories to promote a wider understanding of mental health conditions.

Importantly, everyone has a role in diffusing mental health stigma. People should educate themselves about mental health issues, and better comprehend what life is like for those living with these conditions. By doing so, they can help dispel commonly held myths and stereotypes both in themselves and others.

Through education and understanding, we can eliminate the stigma around mental illness, and there is support available to people who are currently experiencing stigma.

If you, a friend or a family member suffers from mental health or substance use disorders and has not received the help that you need, please email us at call us if in a mental health emergency – (985) 626-6300.