Combating the Stigma of Mental Illness

What is Stigma in Mental Health?

Mental health discrimination is when the successful diagnosis and treatment of a mental illness is challenged by a variety of popular misconceptions. Not only do patients have to deal with the effects of the illness itself, coping with mental illness and the negative stereotypes and stigma that many people associate with these conditions is an additional fight. 

What Causes Stigma in Mental Health?

Humans have a long history of attributing mental-health issues to supernatural causes or personal or moral failings. The rise of scientific forms of treatment have changed the way people perceive mental illness but, for many, the stigma remains. Fear and ignorance are the root causes of this response to persons with a psychological condition they neither wanted nor contributed to. The complex nature of mental-health issues has also led to their being misunderstood by otherwise well-intentioned people.

What Are Some Examples of Mental Health Discrimination?

Evidence of discrimination against persons with a mental-health condition includes:

  • Employment discrimination, including in hiring, promotions, and terminations
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Discrimination in housing, schooling, and other public services
  • Media portrayals of villains as “crazy people”
  • Halloween costumes that exaggerate or denigrate mental illness
  • Harmful or thoughtless language (e.g., casually calling unusual behavior “nuts” or “wacko”)
  • Expectations that persons with mental illness “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (recover through nothing but personal effort).

How Does the Stigma of Mental Illness Affect Individuals?

The stigma of mental illness may cause some individuals to avoid professional treatment on the mistaken notion that they can or should “tough out” the problem on their own.

"Stigma is one of the most challenging aspects of living with a mental health condition."
-Laura Greenstein, "9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma," National Alliance on Mental Illness

How to Fight Mental Health Stigma

How can we destigmatize mental illness? Here are some suggestions: 

  • Talk openly about mental illness. Nearly one in five Americans experiences a behavioral disorder every year. Remind people they are not alone. 
  • Educate yourself and others regarding behavioral disorders. Challenge harmful stereotypes in a respectful manner in your daily life and actions.
  • Watch your language. Avoid casually throwing around phrases like “He’s crazy” or “She’s a lunatic”.
  • Remember that physical and mental illnesses are equally illnesses. If we see changes in behavior based on a person’s physical pain, we don’t typically judge that individual. We can fight stigma by adopting that same standard for those dealing with psychiatric conditions. 
  • Show open-mindedness and compassion for those suffering from a behavioral disorder. Empathy leads to understanding. 
  • Focus on the person rather than the illness. Each of us wants and deserves to be respected and treated as a unique individual who is more than just our conditions or challenges.

End the Stigma of Mental Illness

The battle against mental illness can be won – and that battle starts at home as well as in the hospital. Learn more about fighting mental health stigma by visiting the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.