Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness

Americans are becoming more open about mental health disorders and their treatments.

The majority of adults (87%) agree that mental health disorders are not shameful and people with mental health disorders can get better (86%), according to the American Psychological Association’s Harris Poll.

Although this is encouraging news, stigma still remains when it comes to mental health. One-third of respondents in the same poll also said that people with mental disorders scared them, and indicated they would regard someone differently if they knew the individual had a mental health disorder.

What is Stigma?

According to the British Association for Psychopharmacology, stigma involves three factors: ignorance, prejudice and discrimination.

First, a perceived mark of disgrace or negative stereotype separates a person from others, which in this case, is mental illness. Labeling a person with an illness then casts them as part of this group as opposed to an individual. Finally, any negative attitudes or beliefs about this group of people enables prejudice, which in turn can lead to negative actions or discrimination. Stigma toward mental health leads to attitudes that individuals with mental illness “aren’t trying” or are going through a “phase,” states the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Stigma can also be reinforced through media portrayal, according to NAMI. For instance, film characters with schizophrenia are often violent, destructive or commit suicide.

Consequences of Mental Health Stigma

In the case of mental health, stigma can actually exacerbate mental health conditions, spurring:

  • A reluctance from people to seek treatment, which can induce further stress and anxiety
  • Isolation for individuals with mental health and their families, who also may avoid disclosing information
  • Discrimination against people with mental illness for employment, housing, healthcare access, or in crime situations.
  • Self-imposed isolation as the person internalizes the stigma and begins to feel shame or hopelessness.
  • Lower quality of life a result of exclusion.

Ways to Overcome Stigma

Educate Yourself and Others

Education combats stigma by replacing faulty facts with real facts. Learning and distributing accurate information about mental illness equips others with knowledge as well. People with mental illness can share their story and challenges, and respectfully stop people when their comments or attitudes are adding to the stigma

Leverage Educational Campaigns

Although individuals can influence stigma by educating the people they come into contact with, broader educational campaigns can help to shape the general public or specific groups of people. Within these campaigns, like England’s Time to Change campaign, individuals with mental illness share their story, emphasizing hope and recovery. Along with this presentation, accurate information and messages are included to remind people that mental health illness affects people across ages, backgrounds and cultures – and many people with mental illness continue to be fulfilled and successful.

Be Aware of Your Language and Behavior

Don’t label people – or judge them – based on their mental illness. Also, keep in mind that using mental illness as a descriptor of a person can reduce the individual being only to their mental illness.

Show Compassion

Modeling for others what kindness and compassion look like for people with mental illness can spur others to act as well – and offer a reminder that we’re all just people. For example, stop and speak with someone, or even offer them a hug.

Treat Mental Illness Like Physical Illness

Remember – and remind others – that mental illness is a disease. And just as most people wouldn’t make fun of – or avoid – someone with cancer, they shouldn’t do so for someone with a mental illness either.

In addition, just like physical diseases, mental illness can also result from a combination of behavior and biology – which means some people may be predisposed to mental illness; for others, mental illness is a direct result of a trauma or environment.

See the Person, Not the Condition

Be supportive of everyone, including people with mental illness, by treating them respectfully and offering support and encouragement.

Champion Legislation Reform

Legislation already combats discrimination against individuals based on their gender, race or sexual orientation. Some proponents believe expanding existing acts to include mental health may offer better job protection and employment opportunity.

For example, Great Britain’s’ Equality Act 2010 prohibits discriminating against someone who has a disability in work, education, public service and other areas. Because the Act establishes a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative impact on an individual’s day-to-day activities, the definition can be expanded to include mental illness like bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia.

Talk About Treatment

A mental health appointment should be just as straightforward to talk about as a visit to the dentist. You shouldn’t feel like you need to mask a visit to a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

In the face of stigma, it may be tempting to step away from society; however, getting involved is beneficial for the person battling mental illness and for the community who benefits from his or her involvement.

Collectively, we need to change the dialogue around mental illness, extend support to people with mental illness, and encourage people to be transparent about their challenges without fear of stigma or discrimination.

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