There’s little reason to wonder why there is a stigma attached to mental illness today To say those with mental illness have been treated inhumanely over the years is an understatement.  Among methods used to treat mental illness over the centuries include lobotomies, purging, bleeding, vomiting, asylums, isolation, injecting patients with syphilis, using insulin comas, exorcism, prayer, and rituals.   

Regardless of past treatments and newer, enlightened methods, stigma comes from  multiple sources, such as work, school, family, friends, and media, which work synergistically to cause serious implications for the individual with mental illness.   They all work together in a manner to cause fear and prejudice and exacerbate the stigma of mental illness. And make no mistake, stigmas are based on discrimination; It’s a blatant, prejudicial outlook on a certain population.

There are two types of stigma:  public stigma where society and the media collectively label and portray mental illness as dangerous and violent or a target to be used for laughter at the expense of those suffering from the mental illness   

The second type of stigma is self stigma where individuals accept society’s beliefs and shame and isolate themselves by believing what others see.  It is common belief among those with mental illness that they are less worthy of respect and are ashamed of a sickness that is out of their control, thus seeing themselves through the lens of public stigma.

Some even argue about ending the use of the word “stigma” because of its definition.  Merriam-Webster defines stigma as a mark of shame or a stain, while other dictionaries use the word “disgrace.”  

Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, Ph.D. defines stigma this way, “Stigma is a perceived negative attribute that cause someone to devalue or think less of the whole person.”

The stigma does not get better among family or colleagues.  Mental Health America Eastern Missouri quotes the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 41, No. 2) revealing that 68% of Americans do not want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family, and 58% do not want people with mental illness in their workplace.



It is no wonder some rally against using the term “stigma” when attached to those with mental illness because they are not a disgrace and have nothing of which to be ashamed.

However, stigmas are dangerous.  On the website Psychology Today, an article by Michael Friedman entitled, “The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker,” makes this point regarding the dangers of stigma when he writes,

“In 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General labeled stigma as perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care; this stigma manifests particularly in a phenomenon known as social distancing, whereby people with mental issues are more isolated from others.”

Above all, this social distancing might prevent suffers from seeking much needed help, possibly making their condition worse and/or deadly.  Other harmful side effects of stigmas include the following:


  • Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities 
  • Enduring discrimination through bullying, physical violence or harassment
  • Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover mental illness treatment
  • Negative beliefs that you are limited to the perceptions others have of your condition.  Also called self stigma.
  • Mental health can affect public policy in an ineffective and damaging way
  • Rates of homelessness and poverty are higher with those with mental illness.
  • Stigmas lead to feelings of shame, self-doubt, feeling worthless, and perceived limitations based on public and self stigma.  
  • Social isolation from friends, family, community and social life
  • Being ‘labelled’ and defined by their illness and not by who they are as a person
  • Low self-esteem which further reduces desire to participate in social life or pursue goals
  • Difficulty in accessing services and support
  • Physical health can be affected


According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, there are many actions we can take to combat stigma, some of which are mentioned below along with others:

    1. Talk openly about mental illness.  You may lose people in your life that don’t want to hear it, but remember that those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
    2. Be informed.  Stigma results from lack of understanding.
    3. Choose empowerment over shame.  You decide how you want to live your life.  Empower yourself not to live to other people’s judgements or biases.
    4. Be honest about the need to seek treatment, such as psychiatrist or therapist.
    5. Don’t harbor self-stigma.  Don’t be ashamed, secretive, and hiding.  You are not the problem.  Other’s perceptions are.
    6. See the person, not the illness.
    7. Learn to challenge stigma and confront it when you see it.
    8. Start positive conversations with others about what mental illness and stigma is.  
    9. Know that one can not simply “pull themselves together” or “pull themselves up by the boot straps.”  Understanding and empathy are needed.
    10. In the end, there will always be those that judge.  We can’t control how others see us.  We can only control how we see ourselves.  
    11. How we speak and what we say is important.  While not taking ourselves too seriously is important, humorous language is inappropriate, such as calling ourself “psychopath, “weirdo” or “crazy” because it perpetuates the stigma.
    12. Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” say “I have schizophrenia.”
    13. Join a support group. Some local and national groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), offer local programs and internet resources that help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their families and the general public. Some state and federal agencies and programs, such as those that focus on vocational rehabilitation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), offer support for people with mental illness.
    14. Speak out against stigma. Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters to the editor or on the internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness.

It is reasonable to believe that we all either know someone with a mental illness or have known someone.  The stigma of mental illness is based on discrimination, erroneous perceptions, and stereotypes. It is up to each of us, including those with mental illness, to fight against hate and discrimination and offer to all those with mental illnesses the opportunities that those without mental illness enjoy.  Don’t indulge in the stereotype of what others believe those with mental illness are like. Form your own ideas. Reach out to someone who battles mental illness. Judge for yourself, know what mental illness is like, and then fight the battle with us to end the stigma and discrimination.


  • Are there any other ways you know to help end stigma?
  • How have you been affected by stigma again those with mental illness?
  • Are you hyped up about the new Star Wars movie, or ho-hum about it?