Reducing Mental Health Stigma

Despite advancements in the general public’s understanding of mental health issues and improved access to mental health services, stigma around mental health remains.  The dictionary defines stigma as a mark of shame or disgrace that discredits or ostracizes an individual.  Stigma often leads to prejudice, or negative judgments or assumptions about a person based on certain qualities or group membership.  Finally, prejudice often leads to discrimination, which may include social isolation or exclusion, or limited access to employment or housing. 

Mental health stigma is usually perpetrated by the general population and is often fueled by erroneous beliefs, such as that most people with schizophrenia are violent (they are not!).  However, stigma can also be inflicted by oneself.  One’s belief that their mental illness is an indicator of weakness or a moral failing is a form of stigma as well.  This creates a double-whammy for the individual; not only do they have to manage their mental health symptoms, but also the accompanying shame, self-doubt, and criticism.  Mental health stigma leads to secrecy about one’s symptoms and feelings of hopelessness, both of which create barriers to treatment.  In fact, stigma prevents 40% of people with anxiety and depression from seeking help.

Chances are, either you or someone know you is dealing with (or has dealt with) some type of mental health condition.  It is important that we all act together as allies to help end the stigma!  Here are nine ways to make change:

  1. Educate yourself.  The more you know about mental illness and the various factors that cause it, the more understanding and compassionate you will be.  For example, recognizing that substance abuse is a brain disease, and not an indicator of insufficient willpower or misguided priorities, provides a new lens through which to view people who suffer from this illness.  This perspective is likely to make loved ones more patient and understanding, and will make those with the disease more likely to ask for help.
  2. Use sensitive language.  Using mental health labels or terms in a colloquial or joking manner can make those suffering feel minimized or misunderstood.  For example, hearing something like, “I can’t believe that my crush called me by the wrong name; I should just kill myself” may be very triggering for someone who actually has thoughts of suicide.  Aim to be clearer and more concrete in what you say, such as “I was so embarrassed that I wished I could hide.”
  3. See the big picture.  It is important to remember that mental illness is not the totality of one’s identity.  While certain illnesses, such as depression, may make it very difficult to see beyond one’s current circumstance, you are not your illness.  As stated above, it is important to reinforce this idea via the language we choose.  For example, it is preferred to say “a person with Autism” rather than “an Autistic person.”
  4. Question your own biases.  Check in with yourself continually to assess and address your own biases or stereotypes.  Many of these beliefs are lifelong, implicit, and reinforced by society; you may not even know you have them!  However, it’s never too late to challenge yourself to see things from a new perspective.
  5. Talk about it.  The more silence and secrecy that surrounds mental illness, the scarier and lonelier it feels.  Secrecy and shame fuel one another.  However, mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.  Share your distress with people you trust and don’t be shy to ask for help when needed.
  6. Compare mental illness to physical illness.  People are typically much kinder to themselves and much more likely to seek treatment for a medical illness.  For example, no one would judge someone for getting chemotherapy to treat cancer.  Similarly, no one would tell someone with a broken to bone to just “suck it up” and forgo getting a cast.  Why are these forms of treatment deemed acceptable while therapy or psychopharmacological treatment for mental illness is seen as embarrassing or only to be used as a last resort?
  7. No tolerance policy.  Don’t be afraid to call out someone if you hear them using derogatory language or spreading misinformation.  This may include speech you hear from friends and family, posts you see on social media, or references made in TV and movies.
  8. Do not discriminate.  Be sure to show just as much respect and compassion for those with mental illness as you would to anyone else.  Do not assume that they can’t or won’t want to do things just as everyone else.
  9. Remember, you’re doing the best you can!  No one would choose to endure the emotional distress that many people with mental illness do.  If it were that easy to just “calm down” or “cheer up,” you would have done it long ago!  Even though mental illness cannot be seen, it is very real.  Pat yourself on the back for the efforts you’ve made, whether it was reaching out for help or just getting out of bed, and never give up!

Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist