Mental health stigma: 10 tips to fight discrimination

April 26, 2022 - 19 min read

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What is stigma?

The cost of mental health stigma

Why is mental health stigmatized?

6 types of stigma

How mental health stigmas impact individuals

Ways to cope with mental health stigma

What can I do about stigma?

We are now more likely to see media about mental health care options and how mental health affects our quality of life. And it is more common to hear high-profile athletes and celebrities open up about their own mental health experiences. That said, there is still a stigma around mental health issues and mental illness that often discourages people from seeking the help they need.

Let’s look at types of mental health stigma, what causes them, the consequences of stigmatizing mental health, and ways to address it.

What is stigma?

Stigma originates from the Latin word meaning “mark or brand.” A stigma is when people hold negative beliefs about others because of their differences. These differences can involve lifestyle choices, chosen company, identity, and physical or mental health. 

Just as mental health stigmas can stem from external sources, they can also negatively impact families and social circles. It can be challenging for loved ones to support an individual dealing with mental illness who does not feel empowered to seek help.

Examples of mental health stigma include:

  • Name-calling: calling someone with a mental health condition “crazy,” "too sensitive," or "weak."
  • Misrepresentation: portraying individuals with mental illness as overly violent, aggressive, or incompetent or blaming them for being unable to "get over" their condition
  • Mockery: mocking someone for seeking help or mental health services
  • Avoidance: treating those with mental health conditions as if they are contagious, less human, or less of an individual worthy of time and consideration

The cost of mental health stigma

The sheer number of people affected by mental health issues is working against the negative attitudes and misconceptions. According to a recent survey, roughly 19% of the US population reports clinical mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Many more struggle with a range of non-clinical mental health issues that negatively affect their health and well-being

There is also growing evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically increased mental health suffering for many.

In most groups, someone is likely dealing with a mental health condition, either for themselves or a loved one. At any point in time, our co-workers, friends, and neighbors may be struggling in parallel with the lives we see.

The costs of not addressing these issues are rising globally. 

Researchers estimated $2-5 trillion in annual losses in 2020. Primarily from reduced productivity and poor mental health.

Mental health also has a significant impact on the physical health of individuals, families, and communities. Thus, unaddressed poor mental health becomes a matter of public health. 

While the impacts are clear and there is more awareness around mental health issues, the stigma of mental illness and poor mental health also prevails.

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Why is mental health stigmatized?

As a society, we have come a long way since medieval times, when mental illness was seen as a curse from God or evidence of demonic powers. However, there is still a prevalence of stigma and a tendency to view those who have mental illness as “less than,” “other,” or weak in some way. 

Stigmas often develop from the processing of misinformation, pre-existing prejudices, and ignorance.

Misinformation can come from conversations with friends and family or the media.

For example, news media regularly features the most extreme and dangerous forms of mental health conditions. Films and TV shows also tend to focus on the most extreme and often inaccurate or stereotypical examples of severe mental illness. They may use characters who suffer from extreme forms of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia as villains.

A lack of understanding and pre-existing beliefs about mental health then perpetuate these ideas. And too often, these stories or misrepresentations continue to fuel negative stereotypes. 

But the reality is more nuanced than many realize. There is a broad spectrum of mental health experiences in our society.

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6 types of stigma

As we mentioned, stigma can involve various individuals, including those dealing with mental illness. 

Here are some of the most common types and impacts of stigma and how to recognize them. 

  1. Public stigma: Public or social stigma comes about when populations believe that mental health is negative in some way. These often show up as stereotypes. An example would be assuming that people with mental health issues are more likely to be dangerous or unstable than others. This is simply not the case, but it does perpetuate a fear or hesitancy toward those dealing with mental health challenges. 
  2. Self-stigma: Self-stigma is an internalized stigma. An individual takes on the negative mental health attitudes of society, their family, or their culture and turns it on themself. Examples include feeling ashamed or disappointed due to a diagnosis or feeling that your mental illness is your fault. This can lead to a lack of engagement with others and limiting beliefs about yourself. Ultimately self-stigma reinforces and perpetuates the stigma.
  3. Institutional stigma: Policies and procedures that disproportionately affect people with a mental health condition systematically impact society. They can be intentional or unintentional. They can happen on a company, school, or governmental level, such as the shortage of accessible mental health care for all. Institutional stigma affects various demographics differently, encouraging stigmatization in some communities.
  4. Perceived stigma: This stigma relies on the assumption that others will view a mental health issue negatively. In this way, the fear of others’ opinions is so great that a person avoids addressing their mental health needs. They are perceiving a threat that may or may not be valid given the context. 
  5. Stigma by association: Also known as courtesy or associative stigma, this stigma is about being close to or related to someone who has a mental health diagnosis. For example, many people believe that mental health is hereditary. While some conditions are, the genetic connection is more complicated in reality. Yet, this type of stigma can hinder family members from openly speaking about challenges or getting professional help for their loved ones. 
  6. Label avoidance stigma: Many people avoid seeking support as they fear having a label. They fear the stigmatization and stereotype associated with a mental health label. Their fear might not be misplaced. The general public’s lack of understanding can hinder their opportunities for employment, healthy relationships, and other pursuits.

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How mental health stigmas impact individuals

There are many consequences of mental health stigma.

Often, the most significant impact is that people avoid getting support for their mental health concerns out of fear of discrimination or prejudice.

Stigmas can lead to these burdens being endured in silence, making them even more challenging to manage. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of these and other effects of stigma.

  • Reluctance to seek treatment: Fear of stigma can result in delayed treatment of issues, which in turn can exacerbate the condition. 
  • Social isolation: Often mental health sufferers avoid interacting with others due to fear of rejection. Loneliness and isolation can make symptoms worse over time. This creates more challenges, digging a metaphorical hole that can be hard to climb out of. 
  • Violence and hate: While the media may focus on violence, the opposite is more likely to be true. Those who are actively managing their mental health, particularly more severe forms of psychological distress, are more likely to be the victims of violence than others. People of color, women, and LGBTQI+ individuals are particularly vulnerable to being the victims of violence or hate crimes when a mental health diagnosis is also present. 
  • Feelings of shame: This is a common consequence of mental health suffering. Due to stigmas, many feel shame about having a diagnosis at all. Shame then perpetuates more social isolation and can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Unemployment and discrimination at work: Having a mental health issue can result in a lack of employment. Some companies may not want to take on a person who seems to be struggling in any way. It can also lead to discrimination at work if colleagues joke or offer unhelpful or hurtful commentary. Company policies and procedures that are not accommodating can perpetuate the problem.   

Ways to cope with stigma

You don’t have to suffer alone or let stigma stand in the way of getting support to take action to address and manage your mental health. Let’s take a look at some ways you can cope with stigmas effectively.   

  1. Get professional support: The longer you delay reaching out, the more negatively mental health issues can affect your life. With the help of a trained professional, you can take steps toward better understanding what you are struggling with and what you can do to overcome it. If you in fact have an illness or serious condition, a trained mental health care professional can help you understand your options for treating it. Talking through the stigma you are experiencing can be powerful.
  2. Be mindful of negative self-talk: Pay attention to how you speak to yourself, even in your mind. The things we say to ourselves have a way of becoming the narrative of what we think about ourselves. If you are constantly judging and criticizing yourself, you are more likely to believe the messages you tell yourself. These kinds of automatic negative thoughts create pathways in your mind that reinforce themselves and become harder to change moving forward. Try using positive affirmations to reinforce the good and change your thought patterns
  3. Treat yourself like a friend: If a close friend or family member were to come to you and tell you the same thing that you are thinking about yourself, what would you tell them? Chances are you would be kind and supportive rather than attacking or critical. Self-compassion strengthens resilience. So, if you’d say it to a friend, make sure you’d say the same to yourself.
  4. Avoid isolation: Stigma and disease thrive in the dark, quiet recesses of our minds. While it can be tempting to avoid interacting with others, challenge yourself to connect with someone, anyone. Set a goal, start small, and build on it. For example, reach out to a friend once or twice a week. Even just a text to say “hi” is a start. This can seem bigger and more intimidating in our minds than it really is, especially if you’ve been isolated for a while. Once that feels less hard, reach out to more friends or family each week. Try meeting up for dinner or coffee. Build up to larger interactions with others. 
  5. Remember you are not your illness: It can be tempting to own your illness in the ways you talk and think about it. But separating it out a bit can help give it less power. Reframe: you aren’t broken, but you might be experiencing a bout of low mental well-being. Instead of saying “I’m an anxious person,” say, “I am having anxiety symptoms.” It may seem like a simple distinction but we truly are what we tell ourselves we are.
  6. Join a support group: There are many support groups out there for both those managing their mental health as well as the family members supporting them. A couple of places to start are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and MentalHealth America. Joining a support group can help with feelings of loneliness and provide a reminder that you are not alone in your suffering. You never know where those connections might lead.
  7. Work on building mental fitness: Whether you are struggling with mental illness or a less severe mental health issue, you can develop and strengthen skills that help you maintain and improve your own mental health. Making practices that build your resilience, compassion, flexibility, and stress tolerance part of your every day isn’t a cure-all, but it can give you a stronger foundation to face your mental health issues.

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What can I do about stigma?

Whether you are suffering from stigma, know someone who is, or you simply want to help limit its impact on your community, there are many things you can do. See below for some ideas for managing it more effectively.

  1. Speak out: One of the best ways to end stigma is to speak out about it. When you notice it happening, use your voice to help shine a light on it. You can do this in your conversations as well as at events in your community. Once made aware of the ways they might be negatively impacting others, most people will want to stop doing so as a result.

  2. Be a safe space for others: Be mindful of others who might be suffering from a mental health challenge and allow them space to discuss their experiences and feelings. You don’t have to be a trained professional to give someone the gift of feeling heard and seen. Remember to try and talk less and listen more. This will let you hear as much as the other person wants to share.

  3. Remember that words matter: Be mindful of how you discuss mental health and mental illness. Avoid labeling terms such as “crazy.” If you notice others, such as the media, using terms that further perpetuate stigmas, let them know. Bringing awareness to how we all speak about these issues can change the narrative over time significantly. 

  4. Share your own journey: You don’t have to share your deepest, darkest secrets on social media to talk openly about your own mental health journey. But talking openly with others, even on a small scale, can help to decrease the amount of social stigma around mental health issues. It tells others that they are not alone and can bring about feelings of hope that it is possible to overcome mental health challenges.

Taking your first step in addressing mental health stigmas

Stigma can show up in obvious and subtle ways. It is important to first recognize it so that you can take steps to limit its impact on you and those around you.

If it is impacting you, name it, speak truth to it, and find supportive people on your journey as you work on your mental health.

At BetterUp we believe that engaging with your own mental health doesn’t mean that you are fragile. In fact, with the help of our coaches, understanding your mental health is the first step toward building mental fitness and developing the tools and confidence to flourish, no matter where you are now.

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Published April 26, 2022

Kealy Spring

BetterUp Coach

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