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Stigma and Mental Illness: What’s It Really About?

Jul 21, 2020

Breaking Down Stigma: What Is It?

We’ve all heard the word, but sometimes its meaning gets lost. At the core, stigma is a negative perception towards a person or a group of people. Related to stigma is discrimination, a negative action taken against a person or a group. So, stigma (the perception) causes discrimination (the act). 

Here’s an example. There’s a young man who has been struggling with feelings of hopelessness and distress. After seeing a doctor, he was diagnosed with depression. When he talks to a friend about this, his friend becomes visibly uncomfortable, likely because there is a social stigma around male vulnerability. Especially when it ties to mental health. Later that day, his friend is going to a birthday party, but he doesn’t get invited because he “will act too sad.” That is discrimination. 

Stigma and discrimination don’t always have to be large feelings or actions, they can manifest in small ways. They can be seen when people avoid socializing with someone who has a mental illness. They can be telling a friend or family member they are overreacting to their symptoms. In a more grand form, they can be the barriers that society places on people with mental illness that make it more challenging to get housing, employment, and proper healthcare. 

The Stigma of Mental Illness: How It Happens

Discrimination against people with mental illness happens for a variety of reasons.  

Often, it happens out of ignorance. People are simply uneducated about mental illness–largely because we still don’t talk about it enough. Without the proper dialogue around mental health and wellness, it’s easy to become confused, afraid, or judgemental to those who experience mental illness. 

Discrimination against those with mental illness typically starts by thinking of people with mental illness as the “other,” as different from oneself. With no direct experience or education, people can fear things that are different or difficult to comprehend. Because someone struggles to relate to the experiences of those with mental illness, they may assume they’re overreacting. Or, they may be suspicious or wary.

The sad reality is that stigmas are embedded in our culture.. One common stigma is that people with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Another is that it’s all in their head. We frequently hear people talk about “getting over it,” but we don’t hear about how. We internalize these messages from friends, family, teachers, leaders, and the media without even realizing it. If you grow up in an environment where mental illness is stigmatized, it can be easy to adopt those beliefs without even being fully aware.

Why Does It Matter?

Stigma and discrimination matter because they tell people that they are less than. They build shame and barriers. They have the ability to drastically alter the course of someone’s life. Stigma causes people to feel as though mental illness is their fault, even though it’s not. Mental illness is sparked by a variety of factors, including biological, societal, psychological, and other genetic factors. It is not a choice. When people with mental illness internalize the message that their mental illness must be their fault it can lead to guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. 

One of the serious consequences of stigma is that it becomes a barrier that can prevent people from seeking treatment. Only 43% of American adults with mental illness get treatment. This means over half of the people who live with mental illness are living without help. Internalized shame can cause people to avoid treatment. They may believe they should be able to fix it themselves, or they may fear treatment because of what they’ve heard. Other factors can also lead to the avoidance of mental healthcare, too, including high healthcare costs and service availability.  

We Are The Solution

We are the biggest advocates for fighting against the stigma of mental illness. We can try to change our community’s attitudes towards mental illness through: 

  1. Legislation. You can advocate or support organizations that advocate for better mental healthcare. You can call your legislators or testify for or against a bill relating to mental health. 
  2. Organization. You can join others in bringing awareness to mental health. At Guild, we have several events every year to tell the stories of our clients and staff members. **link to events page.** We value bringing awareness to mental illness. 
  3. Education. Educational courses in schools and workplaces can help lead to decreased negative attitudes towards people with mental illness. Knowing and acknowledging that mental illness is a medical condition is essential to breaking down barriers. 
  4. Communication. Talking about mental illness makes it less taboo and helps people realize they aren’t alone. Sharing your story can help combat stigma. It’s also important to listen to and show compassion for people you know with mental illness. 

To reduce stigma, we must act. People in power must change their attitudes about people with mental illness. This can help our communities make changes that effectively include and empower people with mental illness, and ultimately, improve their lives. 

If you are interested in getting involved in mental health advocacy, consider volunteering for Guild. If you want to help break barriers by sharing your story and showing others they are not alone, you can guest blog for us. Email marcomm@guildservices.org for more information and to get started!



It’s Not Stigma, It’s Discrimination, National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mental Illness Stigma: Concepts, Consequences, and Initiatives to Reduce Stigma, Science Direct. 

Mental health: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness, Mayo Clinic. 

Understanding Sigma as a Mental Health Barrier, Xtelligent Healthcare Media. 

Does More Mental Health Treatment and Less Stigma Produce Better Mental Health?, The Conversation U.S. 

“A Disease Like Any Other”? A Decade of Change in Public Reactions to Schizophrenia, Depression, and Alcohol Dependence, American Journal of Psychiatry.