What is Mental Health Stigma

According to Mental Health America, more than half of individuals with mental health conditions do not seek mental health treatment due to stigma. Mental health stigma can stem from concerns about judgment from friends and family members or fear of losing one’s livelihood. Despite strides made in mental health care over the past few years, stigma against people with mental illness remains a significant issue.

Sometimes, social stigma and prejudice against individuals with mental health problems can be pronounced. In other cases, it might be subtle, for example, avoiding contact with someone with schizophrenia under the assumption that they’re unstable. People with mental health conditions are marginalized in various ways, and understanding what the stigma of mental illness looks like is the first step to addressing it.

fighting mental health stigma

What is stigma?

Stigma is when someone views you negatively due to distinguishing sociodemographic characteristics or personal traits that are considered to be, or are, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype). Unfortunately, negative attitudes, stereotypes, and beliefs against individuals with mental health disorders are common, especially in the United States.

In many cases, stigma is linked to a lack of understanding. For example, inaccurate mental health knowledge or misleading representations of mental illness in media can contribute to stigma. According to a systematic review on mental illness stigma, although the general population accepts the medical nature of mental health disorders and the need for treatment, many people maintain negative views of people with mental illness.

According to the American Psychiatry Association, researchers identify three types of stigma:

  • Public stigma characterizes the negative and prejudicial attitudes and beliefs that the general public has toward mental health disorders.
  • Self-stigma involves the harmful attitudes, including self-judgment, low self-esteem, and feelings of shame, that individuals with mental illness have toward their mental disorder.
  • Institutional stigma, which is systemic, refers to policies of the government and private organizations that discriminate against those with mental illness, such as a lack of funding for mental health education programs and fewer mental health services compared to other forms of medical care.

In some communities, mental illness stigma is a significant barrier to accessing treatment. For example, in some AAPI communities, seeking professional mental health care may counter the cultural views of avoiding shame and maintaining a strong family. Within the African American community, previous studies have shown that distrust of the healthcare system and healthcare providers can also act as a barrier to seeking mental health services.

Consequences of Mental Illness Stigma

For those with mental illness, stigma and prejudicial attitudes can discourage help-seeking behaviors and exacerbate psychological symptoms. In a recent review of studies by Oexle et al., researchers found that self-stigma negatively affects recovery for individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses. The effects of self-stigma can also include:

  • Feelings of shame or hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty maintaining a positive attitude
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Worsened symptoms
  • Increased risk of self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse
  • Difficulties with interpersonal relationships
  • Reduced likelihood of continuing mental health treatment

According to the Lancet, the impacts of stigma can be pervasive. Mental illness stigma can affect political enthusiasm, charitable fundraising, support for local mental health services, and a lack of funding for mental health research compared to other health conditions.

Some other harmful consequences of mental health illness stigma include:

  • Lack of understanding from family members, friends, coworkers, and others
  • Fewer opportunities for school, work, and social activities
  • Bullying, harassment, or physical violence
  • Reluctance to seek mental health treatment
  • A lack of mental health care coverage under most health insurance plans
  • The belief that you won’t be able to improve your condition

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How to Cope with Mental Health Stigma

Overcoming mental health stigma can feel daunting, especially if you face stigma from close friends, family members, or coworkers. Whether you’re living with a severe psychiatric illness or occasional anxiety, here are some ways to cope with stigma:

  • Seek professional help. If you’re hesitant to admit you need treatment, you’re not alone. Don’t let negative attitudes and stereotypes prevent you from feeling better—and remember that you don’t need to give your loved ones an explanation for seeking treatment. Treatment can help identify what’s wrong and improve the symptoms that take a toll on your personal and work life.
  • Don’t let social stigma create self-doubt. You might judge yourself or feel that your condition is a sign of personal weakness. Seeking mental health care, educating yourself about your mental health issue, and connecting with others can help you overcome stigma.
  • Avoid isolating yourself. If you have a mental illness, you might try to hide it from friends and family members. Instead of isolating yourself, allow your loved ones to offer you support.
  • Remember that your mental illness doesn’t define you. You are much more than your mental health condition.
  • Join a support group. Local and national organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), offer support group resources for those with mental illness. Support groups help reduce stigma by connecting people with mental illness, as well as educating their families and the general public. Many organizations also offer support groups for young people and adolescents with mental illness.
  • Speak out against stigma. Consider sharing your story at events, in editorial letters, or through social media. Sharing your experience can help encourage those experiencing similar challenges to seek help.

In addition, NAMI also offers some helpful suggestions on how individuals can combat mental illness stigma:

  • Talk openly about mental health. Don’t be afraid to share information on mental health history, research, and the prevalence of mental illness on social media.
  • Educate yourself and others. Respond to prejudicial attitudes by sharing facts and personal experiences.
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness.
  • Normalize mental health treatment, including therapeutic interventions and medication, just like other types of primary care. Don’t shame others for seeking mental health care.
  • Confront the media when they use stigmatizing language or present stories of mental illness negatively. Social marketing campaigns can go a long way towards encouraging others to seek professional help.
  • Encourage equality between mental and physical illness—would someone treat an individual with diabetes the same way they treat an individual with PTSD?
  • Empower yourself. Don’t let others influence your perception of yourself.

Finding a Therapist

Mental health stigma isn’t just an interpersonal issue—it’s a health crisis. Taking steps to confront the stigma of mental illness in your community by educating yourself and others is essential. Whether you’re experiencing mild mental health symptoms or a serious mental illness, seeking mental health treatment is the first step to overcoming stigma.

To start your mental health journey, reach out to a therapist through the Therapy Group of NYC. We know that starting therapy can feel intimidating—and our compassionate, authentic mental health professionals are available to help you every step of the way. Whether you’re living with major depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder, one of our licensed therapists will help you navigate your mental health issues with personalized, data-driven treatment.

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