Understanding and erasing the stigma of mental illness


People’s views, attitudes and beliefs play a role in how they interact with and help support people who have a mental illness. These attitudes and beliefs are often influenced by personal knowledge, cultural stereotypes and media stories about those who have mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The negative attitudes and beliefs held by people in society and the general lack of understanding about mental illness motivates the public to fear, reject, avoid and discriminate against these individuals, which poses significant barriers to treatment and recovery for people who have mental illness.

What is stigma?

Stigma refers to negative labels (stereotypes), attitudes (prejudices) and behaviors (discrimination) toward a person or group of people who have certain characteristics or traits. There are two main types of stigma that affect people with mental illness:

  • Social stigma: the discrimination and prejudicial attitudes of people in society toward individuals with mental illness, which can contribute to social exclusion and discrimination
  • Self-stigma: the pervasive and underlying sense of being different from others, which may lead people with mental illness to believe the negative thoughts expressed by others — that they are unable to recover, undeserving of care or dangerous or responsible for their illness

Social and self-stigma can be debilitating for individuals with mental illness, can prevent them from reaching their life goals and make it difficult for them to gain access to resources they need to function in society (e.g., educational opportunities, employment, a supportive community, access to quality health care).

A third type of stigma called institutional or “structural stigma (i.e., stigma that is part of social and institutional policies and practices) presents additional large-scale barriers to mental health care by undermining opportunities for people to seek help” (e.g., the lack of funding for mental health research or mental health history usage in legal proceedings may be structural reasons why people might not seek treatment), according to Patrick W. Corrigan, Psy.D., a distinguished professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and his colleagues.

The impact of stigma on people with mental illness

Mental health stigma remains one of the greatest challenges facing people with mental illness, as it contributes to feelings of shame, hopelessness and distress among afflicted individuals and their families, and it is a major reason why many are so reluctant to seek help. The failure to understand mental illness can be seen throughout history, leading to the institutionalization of mentally ill individuals in “insane” asylums against their will in the early 20th century and state-supported programs that surgically sterilized people with mental illness up until the 1950s.

Although people with mental health conditions are no longer forced to live in these institutions or subjected to mandatory surgical sterilization, many people continue to avoid seeking treatment because they fear that if others know about their mental health problem they will be negatively viewed or labeled (i.e., stereotyped) as being “sick,” “crazy,” “dangerous,” “unpredictable,” “violent,” “unsociable” or “defective.”

Problems resulting from mental health stigma

The symptoms of mental illness alone can affect a person’s ability to function as a productive member in society, but the stigmatization of mental illness further hampers these individuals’ ability to reach their life goals and prevents them from getting the treatment they need. Multiple problems result from social stigma, some of which include:

  • Fewer opportunities for employment, education or social activities
  • Bullying, physical violence or harassment
  • Inadequate coverage of mental health treatment services by health insurance companies
  • Poorer subjective quality of life
  • Impairments in independent living
  • Difficulty finding housing
  • Self-stigma
  • Social exclusion
  • Poor social support (family, friends, support groups, neighbors, co-workers, etc.)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Suicide and suicidal ideation

Fighting mental health stigma

Understanding what stigma is and its impact on society can be critical for improving the treatment of people with mental illness. There are several ways to combat mental health stigma, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one of the leading proponents in the fight against stigma:

  • Get treatment (don’t let the fear of being labeled prevent you from getting the help you need).
  • Take advantage of school resources (it is against the law to discriminate against students due to a mental health condition).
  • Educate yourself and others about mental health.
  • Talk openly about mental health.
  • Share your personal story.
  • Speak out against stigma (become an advocate).
  • Be empathetic and compassionate for people living with a mental illness.
  • Stop criminalizing people with mental illness.
  • Challenge negative stereotypes of mental illness portrayed in the media.
  • Be conscious of using disrespectful language such as calling someone “retarded” or using negative terms such as “crazy,” “psycho” or “lunatic.”
  • Take time to see individuals for who they are, rather than as their condition (using phrases such as “a person with schizophrenia” rather than calling the person “a schizophrenic”).
  • If you are diagnosed with a mental health condition, don’t equate yourself with your illness (e.g., instead of saying things like, “I’m bipolar,” say, “I have bipolar disorder”).
  • Find support from family, friends and other people in your community.

The negative stereotypes that go along with having a mental illness — mainly that these individuals are dangerous, unpredictable or violent — have led to the portrayal of people with such problems as being responsible for their illness, which prevents these individuals from receiving the treatment and care they need.

Various resources in the community, such as local and national support groups at NAMI, aim to reduce stigma by providing education to people who have mental illness as well as to their families and the general public. Reducing stigma should be a main priority in mental health care, as it is one of the greatest challenges facing people with mental illness and their families.

Don’t let the fear of being labeled prevent you from getting the help you need. Talking openly about mental health, sharing your story and educating yourself can be therapeutic and can also help to reduce stigma. White River Academy is a therapeutic treatment facility for adolescent boys with emotional and behavioral problems. For more information about how you can challenge mental health stigma or about the programs offered at White River Academy, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann, graduated from California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques.

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