Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, and/or behavior. This includes depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few. Some are more severe—like schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer’s, etc.—but all are treatable to some degree. Depending on the person and the condition, some can even make a full recovery.
Many triggers cause one to develop a mental illness. Some are genetic; some stem from environmental issues such as childhood trauma and stress at school or work; some are undetermined. Regardless, these illnesses are as real as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, cancer, and other severe medical conditions, but unlike most medical conditions, often mental health issues are stigmatized. Some people may think these conditions are self-inflicted; some do not believe they are real. When people suffering from these conditions reach out for help, they may hear replies such as “man up” or “stop worrying about it,” as if it were that easy.
Mental health disorders affect one in every five American adults and 17% of youth (6-17 years).1 Depression is the most diagnosed type of mental illness, and often the most stigmatized. Although the level of acceptance has improved in recent years, mental health stigma still causes people to delay treatment, or worse, avoid it altogether. It was reported that 40% of people with depression or anxiety do not seek treatment because of the stigma.2 Letting mental health problems linger untreated can seriously endanger the current and future well-being of those suffering from these conditions. It certainly contributes to the tragic fact that one million people commit suicide worldwide each year.
Examples/Types of Stigma
Stigma is when people hold negative beliefs about others because of their physical or behavioral differences. Examples of mental health stigma include3:
- Referring to someone with a mental health condition as “crazy” or “weak.”
- Portraying individuals with mental illness as incompetent, overly aggressive or sensitive, and blaming them for being unable to “get over” their condition.
- Mocking someone for seeking help for mental health services
- Avoiding those with mental health conditions.
No one likes to be treated differently, mocked or avoided, and actions like these can make someone’s condition much worse.
According to the American Psychiatric Association4, there are three types of stigma:
Public Stigma: The general public’s negative interpretation, attitude, or opinion of mental illness.
Self-Stigma: Your own beliefs and feelings towards your mental health condition. This includes shame, embarrassment, disappointment, etc.
Institutional Stigma: The policies our government puts in place regarding mental illness. For example, lower funding for mental illness research, or fewer services relative to other types of health care.
As you can see by this chart above, negative thoughts brought upon by the three types of stigma can be very impactful. Even if you know mental illness is normal, the media and/or people around you can easily manipulate your beliefs and lead your mind down the wrong path.
Effects of Stigma
Ultimately, stigma and discrimination can make those struggling with mental illness feel more vulnerable and alone, and may reduce the likelihood of them seeking treatment. Other effects include:
- reduced hope
- lower self-esteem
- increased psychiatric symptoms
- feelings of violence and hatred
- social isolation
- difficulties focusing on work or school
Often people with mental illness hide will do their best to hide the traits of their condition, making them tough to spot from the outside looking in. If your friend, family member or co-worker exhibits any of these traits, check in with them to see if they are doing alright.
Ways to Fight Stigma
This leads us to the positive portion of this blog. You do not have to let stigma stand in the way of getting support and addressing a mental health condition. Here are four ways to fight stigma:
- Seek Help
Do not let the fear of being judged by others scare you away from getting the help you need; the longer you delay treatment, the more negatively your symptoms can impact your life. Therapy is a powerful tool to heal the mind. When you finally express your true self, you will feel a heavy weight coming off your shoulders. Speaking with someone, a licensed professional or trusted friend, can allow the two of you to break down your feelings together. When you better understand why you feel or act a certain way, it can help you manage your thoughts and behaviors accordingly.
- Share Your Story
Joining the conversation about mental health will encourage others who feel the same as you to confront their emotions and seek help as well. People often feel alone and trapped with their mental illness, but having someone to relate to and hearing a story about someone who overcame it might be just the motivation they need to get treatment. We can create a much better world for everyone if we normalize these feelings.
- Be Conscious of Language
Talking about mental health may not be enough to overcome stigma—be mindful to phrase your words correctly. When helping someone through a difficult time, remember to empathize rather than compare. People who struggle with mental illness like to know that someone will always be there to comfort them. For example, if someone opens up to you about their depression, avoid phrases such as “It could be worse,” or “We’ve all been there,” because no one knows precisely how they feel. Examples of empathy include, “Is there anything I can do to help?” and “I’m here for you when you need someone to talk to.” This shows you’re taking the initiative and are willing to take action to help. Pay attention to your vocabulary as well. For example, instead of saying “You’re a drug addict,” say “You’re struggling with an addiction.” This will help them separate themself from their illness. No one should feel defined by their disease.5
- Advocate for Mental Health
Statistics speak volumes in today’s digital age. By spreading awareness of the normality of mental health challenges through the data which illustrates how commonplace it is, we can help shine a little light into this often dark world. Every little action helps; whether it’s sharing a post on social media, reaching out to an old friend, chatting with a stranger, or volunteering at an event, you can have a positive impact on your community.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, with this year’s theme being “Together for Mental Health.” If you battle inner demons, remember you are not alone. Millions of others are going through similar struggles, and there are plenty of resources for those who need services, medication, or just someone to talk to. And if you find yourself having suicidal thoughts, seek professional help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
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- “Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health Conditions: Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI).” Crisis Prevention Institue, 13 Jan. 2021, https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/Break-the-Stigma-of-Mental-Health.
- “Addressing Stigma.” CAMH, https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/addressing-stigma.
- Spring, Kealy. “Mental Health Stigma: 10 Tips to Fight Discrimination.” Mental Health Stigma: 10 Tips to Fight Discrimination, 26 Apr. 2022, https://www.betterup.com/blog/mental-health-stigma.
- Borenstein, Jeffrey. “Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination against People with Mental Illness.” Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness, Psychiatry.org, Aug. 2020, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination.
- Hionides-Horner, Emily. “7 Ways to Overcome Mental Health Stigma.” 7 Ways to Overcome Mental Health Stigma, Summa Health, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.summahealth.org/flourish/entries/2020/08/7-ways-to-overcome-mental-health-stigma.