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Ending the Stigma

By: Natalie David, MSW Student Intern

According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), more than half of U.S. adults with mental illness don't seek treatment in a given year. Often, individuals can avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns of stigma, prejudice and/or discrimination. While the stigma and discrimination against individuals with mental illness can be subtle, it is harmful no matter the intensity. Research shows that the majority of people recognize mental illness as a disorder and the need for treatment, yet some may still have a stigmatized view of mental illness. Individuals with mental illness can be discriminated against and marginalized in a variety of different ways, but understanding what stigma and discrimnation look like and how we can address it can help.

So, what does stigma look like? Researchers, published in the journal of World Psychiatry, identify two different types of stigma in relation to mental illness:

Public Stigma: negative and discriminatory attitudes/beliefs that the general public endorses about mental illness. The general public is not limited to those who are uninformed; professionals within the mental health discipline may also subscribe to false stereotypes about those with mental illness. An example of public stigma is: some people may believe that individuals with mental illness are unpredictable. This stereotype can lead to negative feelings in which can lead to discrimination. In this case, discrimination may look like avoidance or withholding employment opportunities from those with mental illness.

Self-stigma: prejudice or negative attitude/beliefs in which individuals with mental illness hold against themselves; internalized shame. Individuals may believe the false stereotypes that they are incompent or weak due to their mental illness. These thoughts can lead to self-discrimination, lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.

It is also important to note the stigma around mental illness in some diverse racial and ethnic populations, which can lead to a barrier in accessing mental health services. For example, some communities of color are less likely to seek professional help for mental illness due to potential mistrust in the mental healthcare system; understandably so, as communities of color have experienced historical adversity, including race-based exclusion from healthcare resources.

Researchers, published in the journal of World Psychiatry, found that knowing or being in contact with someone with a mental illness is one of the best ways to reduce stigma; hearing from someone with lived experience can eliminate the fear associated with mental illness, allowing for it to seem more real and relatable. A national survey, conducted in 2018 by Hopelab and Wellbeing Trust, found that 90% of teens and young adults who are experiencing symptoms of depression are searching online for mental health issues; about 3 in 4 teens who are seeking online information about depression are looking for personal stories of individuals who have lived experience.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has also offered some suggestions on how individuals can reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, which follows:

  • Talk openly about mental health - sharing stories with others, whether in conversation or even on a social media platform, can help normalize the symptoms of mental illness.

  • Educate yourself as well as others - respond to misconceptions or negative remarks about mental illness with facts and experience, and challenge your own negative biases.

  • Be conscious of language - your words matter; words can be a barrier for seeking help and a motivator for discrimination.

  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness - comparing mental illness to a physical illness, like cancer or diabetes, may encourage others to think twice about how they view individuals with mental illness.

  • Choose empowerment over shame - rather than believing the negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, look to choose empowerment by refusing to let others dictate how you view yourself.

  • Be honest about treatment - normalize mental health treatments and interventions, just like other health care treatments.

  • Show compassion for those with mental illness, even if you are not the one experiencing this yourself.

  • Let the media know when they are being stigmatizing - often times, the media is a source of sharing stigma and discrimination; let them know when they are using stigmatizing language or presenting stories in a stigmatizing way.

Whether you have a mental illness, love someone with a mental illness, or provide interventions for individuals with mental illnesses, we hope that you join us in working to end the stigma of mental illness. Stigma is a complex issue that often stems from a lack of understanding. Join us in pursuing understanding the unique experiences and perspectives of those with mental illness and how we can best support them.

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