According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders like Mental Health Stigma. Often, people avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or fears of losing their jobs and livelihood. That is because stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness are still very much a problem. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness can be subtle or it can be obvious—but no matter the magnitude, it can lead to harm. People with mental illness are marginalized and discriminated against in various ways. However, understanding what that looks like and how to address and eradicate it can help.
Stigma often comes from a lack of understanding or fear. Inaccurate or misleading media representations of mental illness contribute to both those factors. A review of studies on stigma shows that while the public may accept the medical or genetic nature of a mental health disorder and the need for treatment, many people still have a negative view of those with mental illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental illness is among the most common health conditions in the United States. More than 50% of U.S. adults will need mental health treatment at some point during their lifetime. In addition, 1 in 25 are currently living with a serious mental illness, such as an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or major depression. A national survey estimates that 11.2% of all U.S. adults report regularly feeling some form of worry, nervousness, or anxiety, while 4.7% report frequently experiencing sadness or symptoms of depression.
Given how common it is for people to experience a decline in mental health, the level of stigma that exists in society is surprising and often contradictory. Stigmas in society are commonplace. They can be difficult to dismantle and overcome once they become established over many years. A stigma is a negative and often unfair social attitude attached to a person or group, often placing shame on them for a perceived deficiency or difference to their existence. Individuals or groups can apply stigma to those who live a certain way, have certain cultural beliefs or make lifestyle choices, or to people living with health conditions, such as mental illnesses.
Understanding mental health stigmas
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. 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. Stigma against mental illness can come from several sources, such as personal, social, and family beliefs, and from the mental health condition itself, which may cause a person to act outside what is considered the social or cultural norm. A lack of awareness, education, perception, and a fear of people with mental illness can all lead to increased stigma.
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. 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.
The effects of stigma can include:
- Internalization of negative beliefs
- Social isolation
- Low self-esteem
- Avoiding treatment
- Worsening symptoms
- Lack of criminal justice
- Discrimination at work
How to Overcome Mental Health Stigmas?
Public education to increase knowledge around mental illness is paramount since the majority of stigma comes from a lack of understanding and misplaced fear. It is important to review reliable sources of information on mental health conditions and become better informed when learning that a friend, family member, or coworker is living with a mental illness. At the individual level, a person with a mental health illness can get actively involved in their treatment.
They could also consider getting an advocate if they feel that stigma impacts their ability to navigate day-to-day circumstances, such as employment, housing, or healthcare. An advocate is a trained professional who helps people work through employment disputes, medical appointments, financial claims and appointments, and housing problems. They support the rights of others who may not have the strength or knowledge to do so on their own.
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.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.