How Stigma Affects the Lives And Health of People With a Mental Illness

Mental illness is often a subject a lot of people don’t wish or dare to talk about. Because many are still widely uneducated about mental health issues, numerous myths about mental illness and mental health persist. Nevertheless, the 21st century is high time to debunk the myths surrounding mental disorders.

What is stigma?

Stigma is when somebody views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic that is thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage. Negative attitudes toward people with a mental health condition are unfortunately quite common.

A frequent consequence of social stigma is discrimination, which means that someone treats a person with mental disorder in a negative way because of his or her mental health problems. Discrimination can be obvious and direct, such as insults and negative remarks about your illness or treatment, or it may be unintentional or subtle, for example, avoidance because somebody assumes you could be violent, unstable or dangerous dues to your mental health condition.

Stigma and discrimination often make mental disease worse and stop a person from getting the help they need. People with mental illness might try to avoid the label of mental illness altogether and will try not to be associated with mental health care. Unfortunately, not seeking help often results in mental health problems progressing and becoming worse.

In this post, I will try to explain and show you the importance of destigmatizing mental illness and the mentally ill. Such de-stigmatization would have substantial benefits on mental health of the whole population.

Stigma process

Four processes are involved in stigma formation: cues, stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Four common cues from which the public seems to infer mental illness are social-skills deficits, psychiatric symptoms, labels, and physical appearance. For example, if people notice someone showing inappropriate emotions or bizarre behavior, they commonly think that he must be “crazy”. Bizarre behavior could therefore be one of the cues that triggers mental illness labeling.

Cues then elicit stereotypes. A common stereotype of persons with mental illness is that they are dangerous, incompetent, and responsible for their illness due to their weak character or similar.

Based on a stereotype an emotional reaction might appear, such as fear of mentally ill. Discrimination is a common occurrence that manifests as a negative action against people with mental health problems. Discriminatory behavior may include avoidance, ignoring, or even deliberate violence against mentally ill.

Public stigma

Researchers distinguish two types of stigma: public stigma and internalized or self-stigma.

Public stigma represents what a naïve public does to the stigmatized group of mentally ill when they endorse the prejudice about that group.

Two important effects of public stigma interfere with mental health care:

  1. Many people with mental illness never pursue treatment. Because they try to avoid the label, many amongst the mentally ill may put off seeking help and talking to a doctor about their problems. As they often see it, being labeled “depressed” or “anorexic” could only bring negative consequences into their lives, such as having friends act weird around them or people avoiding them because of their mental health problem.

  2. Those who begin treatment often fail to fully adhere to services as prescribed. This means that patients that had prescribed antidepressants might decide to stop taking them because of a rising concern about what others might think. The outcome of coming off antidepressant treatment on your own can be dreadful. In addition, many try to solve the problem on their own.

Mental health professionals are very likely to stigmatize, according to research, especially psychiatrists. The stigma shows subtly through motivation given to adhere to treatment or through presenting the patient with treatment options. Those psychiatrists who thought in advance that improvement is not likely were less likely to give valuable resources to the patients.

Self-stigma and the why try effect

Self-stigma or internalized stigma, as some researchers call it, is what members of the stigmatized group (that is, mentally ill) may do to themselves if they internalize the public stigma.

Self-stigma has different effects for an individual, but the most common are diminished self-esteem and lowered confidence. People who feel that the public stigmatizes them are likely to internalize the stigma and then blame themselves for their illness.

Believing the stereotype and prejudice is the first step to the why try effect. The why try effect can simply be demonstrated in the following example: “People think I’m incompetent, therefore I must be incompetent. Why should I even apply for the job that I want if I won’t get it because I’m incompetent? Why try?”

Can you see it right there?

What is more, internalized stigma acts upon individual’s social opportunities. Because many might believe friends will start to avoid them because of their mental illness, they will rather start distancing from their friends first. Or they might be worried about not being worthy of love and affection and stop looking for it.

They may also limit the degree to which they express mental health problems, for example, concealing feelings of depression whenever around friends. Lack of social support then inevitably leads to worsening of the condition.

How to overcome the stigma of mental illness?

If you are somebody battling with mental illness, here are some ways that you can deal with stigma:

1. Get treatment. You may not be persuaded that you need treatment, or it could be hard to admit you need one but don’t let the fear of the label prevent you from seeking help and getting better. Believe me, there are evidence-based treatments for your condition out there, seek help from a professional that will know what to do and how to help you. Remember, you are not alone. There are millions of others out there, battling the same battle as you are.

2. Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not your illness. Replace the saying “I’m anorexic” with “I have anorexia.”

3. Don’t isolate yourself. When you realize you have a mental illness, you might be reluctant to tell anyone about it. However, remember that 1 out of 4 people will be affected by a mental disorder at some point of their life. A friend or a colleague might be going through a similar thing as you are. Your family members and friends can offer you support if they know about your mental illness. Reach out to people you trust for support and understanding that you need.

4. Try not to let stigma get to you. Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal weakness or that you should be able to control your illness without any help. Seeking and getting help, educating yourself about your condition, speaking up about it and connecting to others with a mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome self-judgement.

5. Join a support group. Listen to the experiences of others and share yours. You are not alone. Ask your therapist for a recommendation.

6. Speak out against stigma. Consider sharing your experience and expressing your opinions at events or on the internet. This can help others facing similar challenges to find courage to seek help. Moreover, you’re educating the public about your mental illness and by this, effectively overcoming stigma.

Only if we step together to battle the stigma of mental illness, we have a chance for success. The first step to overcoming the stigma is to talk about it. Educate yourself on certain mental illnesses and then talk about them with your friends and family. Endless amounts of good and simple YouTube videos explain the basics and functions of mental disorders. It can be a good resource to start with.

And always remember: mental health starts by asking the question “How are you?”

XX, Ajda