Stigma

Brightly colored fish grouped in large bowl with a single dark fish alone in separate bowlStigma refers to a perceived disadvantage or mark of disgrace that is used to set an individual or specific group apart from other members of society.

What Is Stigma?

Stigmatization occurs when people hold negative beliefs or attitudes about individuals who are members of certain groups or communities. Individuals who are the object of stigma may experience negative attitudes from the general population (public stigma) or from themselves (self-stigma). These negative beliefs may lead to stereotyping, social prejudice, and acts of discrimination.

Individuals may be stigmatized because of their ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, and so on. Many people who are stigmatized by others report experiencing feelings of distress, shame, self-doubt, and hopelessness.

Stigmatization of Mental Health Concerns

Many individuals experiencing chronic mental health conditions may face, in addition to symptoms that may be long-lasting or debilitating and are often difficult to deal with, the added challenge of public stigma, which arises in many cases due to misconceptions about mental health issues.

At present, there exist a variety of stigmas associated with mental health challenges. Individuals with mental health issues are often perceived by society to be violent, incapable of caring for themselves or others, or in possession of a weak character. Some people believe that those with mental health issues should be feared and excluded from the general community or blamed for their conditions.

Mental health stigma may have a profound effect on the success of mental health treatment. Because many societies places great emphasis on traits such as strength, endurance, and independence, people may avoid seeking therapy due to fears that they will be labeled as weak or inferior; treated differently by family or friends; blocked from housing, employment, or insurance opportunities; or fired as a result of their condition. Individuals may also fear stigmatization or discrimination in the workplace, public harassment, or increased self-doubt.

Stigmatization of mental health concerns is often prevalent in institutions that promote a “macho” culture and high levels of excellence. Service members and veterans with serious health issues such as traumatic brain injury (TMI) and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) have been shown to be less likely to seek mental health treatment than civilian individuals who face similar challenges.

The Effects of Stigma

Discrimination as a result of stigma can have a negative effect on mental health. A person who has been stigmatized may put up with physical or verbal abuse; experience low self-esteem or feelings of fear, guilt, and shame; and become socially isolated. Individuals may also come to believe that they are somehow lesser than others and experience low self-worth, which may have the added effect of making it difficult for them to seek help.

Even trained mental health professionals may be susceptible to subtle stereotypes. Stigmatization from a mental health professional may lead one to leave therapy before treatment is completed and avoid seeking further treatment, and fear of rejection or the possibility of experiencing socioeconomic disadvantages may prevent some individuals from attempting to seek help.

Stigma or discrimination on the part of family or friends can cause feelings of isolation. A person may feel unaccepted or experience feelings of depression, stress, or anxiety. Family members may also influence a person’s desire to seek treatment, and some people may be pressured to enter an institution or seek a type of therapy they would not have chosen for themselves.

Coping with Stigma

An individual who faces stigma due to mental health challenges, or for any reason, may experience stress or other distress. When facing persistent stigma, it may be difficult for one to remember that illness is not a defining characteristic. An ethical and supportive therapist or other mental health professional can help a person maintain confidence and self-esteem through therapy and provide them with accurate information about mental illnesses.

People who have been taught that mental illness stems from personal weakness or who have encountered other stigmatizing or discriminatory beliefs can learn otherwise in treatment. Some may find it helpful to share this information with family and friends and may find it helpful to only seek the company of supportive friends and family, when possible.

Those who feel comfortable doing so may share some information about their mental health condition with others. Disclosing one’s personal experience with mental illness can help others become aware of and reduce their own stigma. A support group may be of benefit to some individuals who do not feel safe or comfortable sharing details of their mental health condition and treatment process with people from their personal lives.

Reducing and Preventing Stigma

Stigmatization, like prejudice and discrimination, often stems from ignorance. Many individuals may fear mental illness because they know very little about mental health conditions and their effects. A person who finds themselves discriminating against another individual or group for any reason may find it helpful to examine their own prejudices and become more informed. Obtaining knowledge about a particular group of people, disability, illness, or other issue can often reduce one’s stigma.

Being aware of the following may help one become aware of personal attitudes and beliefs that lead to stigma:

  • Individuals do not experience mental illness through any fault of their own.
  • Statistics show that few individuals with diagnosed mental health conditions become violent.
  • A person cannot tell that another person has a mental health condition by looking. 
  • Mental health conditions may affect an individual in many different ways.
  • Not all people experiencing depression, or any other mental illness, will engage in self-harming behaviors or have thoughts of suicide.
  • Labeling or judging those who face mental health concerns can cause significant harm.
  • Speaking out against mental health stigma can help prevent further stigmatization.
  • Therapy or therapy in combination with medication can effectively treat or manage most mental health conditions.
  • Information about mental health conditions obtained from movies and television is not always accurate.
  • A mental health professional is the only person who can diagnose a mental health condition.
  • Using terms such as “insane,” “crazy,” and “wacko” may further stigma of mental health conditions.

References:

  1. Corrigan, P. W. & Watson, A. C. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 1(1), 16-20. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832
  2. Government of Western Australia Mental Health Commission. (n.d.). What is stigma? Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.wa.gov.au/mental_illness_and_health/mh_stigma.aspx
  3. Mayo Clinic. (2014). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477
  4. Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. (n.d.). What is stigma? Retrieved from http://www.sabp.nhs.uk/iamme/lets-end-stigma/what-is-stigma

Last Updated: 05-24-2016

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  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    March 26th, 2017 at 2:58 AM

    My psychaitrist offered me psychoeducation but never explained what is was or how many types there are. I think it will benifit me . So I am going to speak to my CPN.

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