Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/22/2022
Do you worry that you may be depressed, have anxiety or that you’re suffering from another mood or psychiatric disorder? Do you feel like your quality of life is sometimes negatively impacted by the way your brain works—the way you think about and perceive things?
Let us ask you a question: why haven’t you talked to someone about it?
The answers people give to questions like this vary. Sometimes, it’s the perception that getting psychiatric help is an admission of weakness.
Some people fear what could come from a diagnosis—what term might forever follow them throughout their lives to describe what’s “wrong” with them.
In all likelihood, your answer may take one of several forms, but it can probably be boiled down to one phrase: “I’m worried about the implications of the stigma.”
Mental health stigma has diminished greatly in just the last few decades. You need look no further than TV shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men to see that in previous generations, seeing a “shrink” was frowned upon.
Today, luckily, that stigma has been greatly diminished, but it’s not gone for good—something that’s evident in the way we consider therapy and medication for ourselves and our mental health.
Mental health stigma is the collective power of the negative attitude toward mental health treatment. Most often, the lack of understanding comes from a lack of knowledge about mental disorders, which in turn gives way to fear.
Mental health and mental illness have been frequently misrepresented in movies and TV.
Sure, we may get the basics of something like depression or anxiety from a movie, but we’re not ultimately learning from a credible source, so much as we’re watching one writer’s interpretation of what it looks like in a fictional world.
The stigma around mental health can take several forms.
It can include public stigma, which is essentially the generally negative attitudes toward people with mental illness.
It can also take the form of institutional stigma: government policies and public or private organization policies that unfairly represent and limit opportunities and resources for people with mental conditions.
But mental health stigma can also take the form of self-stigma, which is best described as a negative individual attitude toward mental illness, represented by shame or self-loathing about a condition you have or may think you have.
It’s not the same as conditions related to your physical health.
The social stigma placed on mental illness and mental health care is not just bad for the people getting treatment.
Sure, they have to deal with scrutiny and uninformed judgment from the likes of the public, friends, family, coworkers and others, and that can make life more difficult.
But mental health stigma also impacts people who aren’t diagnosed and who haven’t sought help because it makes them avoid those tools and resources at their disposal.
The APA divides these types of stigma into two categories: stereotypes and prejudices, and discrimination.
With mental health discrimination, people with mental illness may not be hired because of the perceived dangers or limitations of their condition.
Landlords may avoid renting to people with mental health conditions, partners may avoid dating people with mental health conditions.
People with mental illness may receive less support and fewer opportunities, and they may experience lower self esteem and, ultimately, find their situation hopeless.
Stereotypes and prejudices are less obvious (as are their consequences).
The public may misunderstand someone with mental illness to be incompetent or dangerous. It may also blame people for their mental illness (the public, to put it bluntly, is often ignorant).
But the public’s impact can likewise transfer to someone’s sense of self worth.
After experiencing prejudices, they may begin to believe that perhaps they are incompetent or dangerous—perhaps they don’t deserve basic human decency or respect, or equal treatment (this, we must point out, is absolutely incorrect).
Aside from the obvious misconceptions we mentioned, above, the biggest misconceptions with mental health and the resulting stigma have to do with the “otherness” that people believe about people who are mentally ill.
To be blunt, mental illness is hardly rare. Data show that as many as one in five adults in the U.S. experience symptoms of some form of mental illness each year.
It’s not much different for children—one in six people ages six to 17 experience mental illness each year, and studies show that 50 percent of mental illness begins by age fourteen.
Does that sound fair?
It’s a rhetorical question, but the answer may not be so clear outside this context. It can’t be. How else would you explain a statistic that shows that more than half of mentally ill people don’t receive help for their mental health disorders?
Part of the answer may have to do with costs, but the bigger answer, simply, is fear.
People avoid getting help because they’re afraid of the stigma, of losing their jobs or their partners or their friends and family. People are afraid of being treated differently by anyone — especially by those they love — due to something they can’t control.
And as a result, people with mental health issues suffer more.
The effects of stigma can lower self-esteem, increase psychiatric issues, cause relationship problems, spur avoidance of social activities and social relationships, make people avoidant of continuing treatment and, ultimately, cause further damage to livelihood and wellness.
This is the big question. What can we do about mental health stigma? From a large-scale perspective, answering that question is a lot bigger than just you. However, there’s a lot that you can personally do to help address mental health stigma.
For starters, you can examine your own.
Consider how you talk about mental health and the mental health of others, and explore your assumptions about things like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorders and their many forms.
When it comes to others, you can do a lot for their stigma on a personal level. Talking openly about mental health (generally or your own specifically) and educating yourself and others can make a significant impact.
Be careful with the words you choose to describe people with mental illness, and when presented with opportunities, encourage compassion and equality—treat people the way you would want to be treated.
Normalizing mental health treatment means being open about treatment you may be receiving, and it also means calling out inappropriate prejudices and generalizations that may contribute to stigma for mental illness.
Beyond that, you can also seek support for your own mental illness, and lead by example.
Academic psychiatry and the mental health profession will continue to put resources forward to challenge stigma and attitudes towards people with mental illness. But until they successfully change these cultural norms, your number one priority is your own health.
If you’re experiencing mental illness or the symptoms thereof, it’s time to do something about it. The first thing you should do is seek support.
Mental illness may be something you can talk about on your own, but treating it is another problem entirely. A mental health professional will be able to help you do so safely and effectively.
They may suggest medications or therapy, or both. You can learn more about the various ways to treat mental illness in our mental health resources guide.
Educating yourself is great, but if you’re ready to really take on mental illness today and start busting stigma right here, right now, get the help you need. It’s not hard, and regardless of what others say, you’re not weak for getting it.
It’s gotten much easier to get mental health support in the last decade—between telepsychiatry and online therapy, you can fight mental illness and the stigma around it without even having to put on pants.
How’s that for progress?