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What is Mental Health Stigma and How to Reduce It

Mental health stigma can be a significant barrier, and create prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness

For those who have mental health conditions, more than half do not receive help. The reason this may occur is that people avoid or stall getting treatment due to stigma. They have concerns that they may be treated differently or even lose their jobs. Stigma is a significant barrier to mental health and prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness. 

Stigma against people with mental health conditions can be covert or more obvious. Either way, it can be harmful. Those who struggle with mental illness can be marginalized and discriminated against in multiple ways. However, once we can discover what that looks like, it can be more clear on how to address it. 

What is Stigma?

Stigma is the negative attitudes or discrimination against someone based on a mental or physical health condition or disability. Social stigmas can also occur due to other characteristics like race, gender, sexuality, culture, and religion. 

A Factsheet About Stigma

Stigma usually is a result of a lack of understanding or fear. One contributor to stigma is inaccurate or misleading representations of mental illness in the media. 

According to a review of the studies on stigma, while most people may accept the medical or genetic nature of a mental illness and how someone may need treatment, many of them still have a negative view towards people with mental health issues.

Researchers have categorized three types of stigma: 

  • Public stigma: The negative attitudes that others have about mental health or illness. These views can also be discriminatory. 
  • Self-stigma: The negative attitudes that a person has about their own mental health condition. It can also be referred to as internalized shame.
  • Institutional stigma: A systemic approach to mental health, including policies of the government and private organizations that can limit opportunities for people with mental health conditions. This can either be intentional or unintentional. For example, not having enough funding for mental illness research or offering fewer mental health services. 

How Else Does Stigma Negatively Impact Mental Health?

Stigma can negatively impact not only the individual with the mental illness but their loved ones. It can also be a significant issue in marginalized communities and be a significant barrier for those trying to access mental health services. For example, many black people may distrust the mental healthcare system, for good reason, which can be a barrier to accessing help.

Read more: Reducing Stigma Toward the Transgender Community

What Are the Harmful Effects of Stigma?

Stigma has detrimental impacts that often lead to discrimination. The type of discrimination can be overt and direct, like negative remarks about your mental illness or your course of treatment. It can also be more covert, unintentional, or subtle, like someone avoiding you because they think you are unstable or dangerous because of your mental illness.

Some of the most harmful effects of stigma are:

  • Reluctance or avoidance for seeking treatment
  • Lack of understanding by loved ones, co-workers, and others 
  • Fewer life opportunities like work, school, or social 
  • Bullying, harassment, or violence 
  • Health insurance that won’t cover mental health treatment
  • Negative beliefs about oneself, for example, like you’ll never succeed or that your situation won’t improve 

What Are Some Commonly Stigmatized Mental Illnesses?

Some commonly stigmatized mental illnesses include schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Suffering from conditions like depression or bipolar disorder seems to be more acceptable than these other conditions when people come forward about their diagnosis. However, a mental health condition like BPD seems more taboo. Even certain celebrities with a BPD diagnosis have been open about their self-injury but have not opened up as much about their BPD diagnosis.

BPD is a condition that’s even stigmatized among mental health professionals. According to Becky Oberg for Healthy Place:

“I remember becoming acutely suicidal while at Richmond State Hospital. I told staff and showed them my note–they did nothing. After my attempt and a subsequent battle to see the doctor, I got my answer as to why I was ignored. ‘We had another borderline here and every other word out of her mouth was suicide, so we just assumed you were the same way.

Even more recently, I was at the hospital to be evaluated for self-harm ideation. The crisis counselor told me “That’s your baseline, Rebecca. So what do you want me to do?”

When it comes to schizophrenia, there is also a lot of issues with stigmatization. According to a survey from the National Mental Health Association (NMHA):

  • Only 27% of the general public thinks that successful treatment exists for schizophrenia, with 47% coming from caregivers and 58% from people with schizophrenia.
  • 50% of the general population thinks people with depression can hold a job, and 49% think people with depression can also raise families. In contrast, only 14% of the general public believes that a person with schizophrenia can do either.

How Can You Cope With Mental Health Stigma?

According to Dr. Otto Wahl of George Mason University, here are ten suggestions for coping with mental health stigma:

  1. Educate yourself or others more about mental illness.
  2. Talk to people going through mental health struggles. Many of these individuals may share stories of what is stigmatizing to them, how it affects them, and how they prefer to be treated.
  3. Avoid using ableist, depersonalizing (referring to a person by their diagnosis), or stigmatizing language, like “nutcase,” “maniac,” “psycho,” etc. 
  4. Join organizations like NAMI StigmaBusters, the NMHA, and the National Stigma Clearinghouse to protest material in the media that may be uninformed.
  5. Respond directly to stigmatizing material that you find in the media.
  6. Speak out and spread awareness about stigma.
  7. Talk openly about mental health.
  8. Demand change from elected officials.
  9. Support organizations that fight stigma and contribute financially, if you are able.
  10. Contribute to research projects – once mental health is better understood, then there will be less stigma. 

In Summary 

Fighting mental health stigma is up to the individual. However, it can start by taking steps to help people understand that stigma toward mental illness needs to be reduced as it is doing too much harm to those suffering from mental health conditions.

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Billie Olsen

MODEL: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.