Stigma, the unwarranted shame and disgrace associated with mental illness, is a serious problem affecting the estimated 61.5 million Americans who experience mental illness in any given year. Not only do these individuals struggle with the debilitating symptoms of their illness, but they also face various forms of discrimination, social prejudice, judgmental mindsets and other negative behaviors and attitudes.
Stigma Is Prejudice and Discrimination
The word “stigma” can sometimes seem like a clinical reference that lacks the emotional impact of words like “racism” or “sexism.” Yet the stigma associated with mental illness is just as misguided and equally hurtful. Stigma is really just another way of saying “prejudice” and “discrimination.” When ideas and viewpoints are founded on ignorance or misunderstanding, they lead to irrational negative attitudes (prejudices) and acts or behaviors (discrimination) that cause pain and suffering for everyone involved.
Stigma as a Barrier to Care
More than just cruel attitudes or notions, stigma is having a tangible adverse affect upon those enduring mental illness. Studies have shown that the damaging power of stigma is an obstacle that is actually preventing many people from receiving treatment for their mental disorder. One study, including over 90,000 participants worldwide, ranked stigma as the fourth highest of ten barriers to care. Another study confirmed that those suffering from mental illnesses are frequently excluded from employment or educational opportunities because of stereotypes wrongly depicting them as dangerous, unpredictable or generally incompetent. Feelings of shame and embarrassment are profound reasons for not seeking care. Concerns about being harshly judged makes individuals afraid to let anyone know they have a mental health issue. So instead, they suffer in silence without asking for the help they need. Stigma also creates intensified concerns regarding confidentiality. The potential shame of being exposed brings about a deep reluctance to be identified as a “mental health patient.” This causes many people to put off seeing a doctor or psychological professional, which in turn delays or even prevents their recovery.
Stigma as a Barrier to Well-Being
Enjoying good health is not merely about the absence of a disease or health problem. Well-being also includes things like human rights, meaningful social interactions and access to opportunities. When prejudice and discrimination are targeted against those with mental illnesses, it may not only prevent them from getting care, it also denies them basic human dignity, prevents them from making connections in the community and denies them access to opportunities.
Practical Ways to Fight Mental Illness Stigma
It’s important for all people to actively counter stigma and to support the rights and needs of those with mental illness. Taking an active role in the fight against improper attitudes and behaviors will help restore well-being to others and empower them to get the help they need. The “Shatter the Stigma, Mend the Mind” campaign offers many excellent resources for changing the way people think about mental illness. The following list provides some concrete things people can do to help overcome stigma:
- Know the facts. Educate yourself about mental health problems. Learn the facts instead of the myths.
- Be aware of your own attitudes and behavior. We all grow up with some judgmental attitudes, but we can change the way we think. View people as unique human beings, not as labels or stereotypes.
- Choose your words carefully. Don’t use hurtful or derogatory language.
- Educate others. Use opportunities to pass on facts and positive attitudes about people with mental health problems. If you encounter information that is not true, challenge the myths and stereotypes to help eliminate false ideas.
- Focus on the positive. People with mental health and substance use problems make valuable contributions to society. Stop talking about the negative stories, while recognizing and applauding the positive ones.
- Support people. Think about how you like others to act toward you and treat people who have mental health problems with dignity and respect.
To learn more about mental illness and how we can help you overcome it, give us a call at 877-466-0620.