For thousands of years, society has marginalized those suffering from mental illnesses.
Mental health illnesses are highly pervasive in America. Over 50% of U.S. adults will need mental health treatment at some point in their life, and 1 in 25 people currently live with a serious mental illness, including eating disorders, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. A national survey reported that 11.2% of U.S. adults said they experience feelings of worry, nervousness, or anxiety, and 4.7% said they frequently experience sadness or symptoms of depression.
The high level of stigma surrounding mental illness is surprising, given how common it is for people to struggle with their mental health. Luckily, this stigma has become more and more accepted as a pressing problem we need to address, and many have started to grapple with how we can dismantle it.
But what are current stigmas around mental health, where do they come from, and what can we do about them as individuals?
In more essential terms, a “stigma” is where someone perceives you negatively because of a characteristic or trait that’s labeled as a disadvantage—essentially, a negative stereotype.
Mental health stigmas arise from stereotypes—views that generalize entire groups of people, typically inaccurately and offensively. Common stereotypes include characterizing people living with depression as “lazy,” those with anxiety as “cowardly,” and branding those who seek therapeutic support as “crazy” or “incapable.” A larger, often politicized, stereotype that is fueled by media and news outlets is that those with mental illnesses are “violent” or “dangerous.”
All of these stereotypes, of course, fall terribly short of reality; for example, only a small percentage of people with a mental illness commit violent acts. Moreover, they are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime.
Stigmas lead to various forms of discrimination—sometimes vocalized, such as a crude remark about mental illness or treatment, sometimes subtle, such as avoiding someone because of their condition, and sometimes even internal, where someone living with a mental illness judges themself.
Such stigmas and discrimination surrounding mental health are universal—as a 2016 study remarked, "there is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without mental illness."
The effects of such widespread discrimination are serious. The person suffering may experience hopelessness, shame, a reduced likelihood of staying with treatment, worsening symptoms, lack of criminal justice, and unemployment, among others. According to the Lancet Journal, some with a mental illness “often describe the consequences of mental health stigma as worse than those of the condition itself.” Many internalize the harmful, offensive, or dismissive language thrown at them, contributing to feeling alone, misunderstood, and deeply isolated.
Common stigmas include that people who have a mental illness are dangerous, children and teens are immune to mental health problems, depression is something which you can “snap out of,” and that addiction is a choice (and thus a lack of willpower) rather than a disease.
None of this is new—for millennia, society has been mistreating those suffering from mental illness. During the Middle Ages, for example, people with mental illnesses were burned at the stake under the claim of them being possessed by the Devil, or chained in penitentiaries and madhouses. Since the Enlightenment, the world has been pushing toward finding ways to help those suffering from mental illnesses rather than lock them behind institutional doors—yet we still have a long way to go.
Despite pooling millions of dollars into educating the public through informative campaigns, Americans are still wary of those with mental illnesses. In a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 41, No. 2), researchers found that in 2000, 68% of Americans didn’t want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family and that 58% didn’t want to have someone with a mental illness in their workplace. Some viewpoints have actually regressed; today, people are twice as likely to think that those with a mental illness tend to be violent than they were in 1950, according to the American Psychological Association.
How did the link between mental illness and violence solidify/harden? Part of the blame likely rests on the shoulders of the media and how they portray mental illnesses. The highly popular movie Joker (2019), for example, is the epitome of the violent stereotype: the lead character suffers from a mental illness, which drives him to insanity and violence. The effects of the movie on the public are concerning. An April 2020 study concluded that seeing the movie "was associated with higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness” and postulated that "Joker may exacerbate self-stigma for those with a mental illness, leading to delays in help-seeking."
News outlets also play their fair share in cementing the connection between mental illness with violence. Although news stories are generally factually correct, the issue is that readers only get exposure to violent or saddening mental health stories—the ones that are deemed ‘newsworthy’—and thus develop the idea of mental illnesses as dangerous. Additionally, many news sites jump to quick, stereotyped conclusions, which worsens matters.
"If a woman drowns her children, people speculate—the news media speculates—that she must be off her medication,” said Patrick Corrigan, a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and head of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research.
So what can we all do about this?
Although the stigma of mental health may feel like an overwhelmingly large problem, it often stems from individuals’ actions, which means that you have the responsibility to make a change.
Eliminating harmful words from your vocabulary is an important step to dismantling “micro aggressions.” Society uses words such as “crazy,” “retard,” and “psycho” in conjunction with the mentally ill that have strong stereotypical implications. It’s important to avoid words like these in our vocabulary—words may seem small, but they matter.
Additionally, it’s important not to equate people with their illness (both when talking to people with a mental illness, and for those suffering from a mental illness). Instead of saying “they’re bipolar,” or “I’m bipolar,” say “they/I have bipolar disorder.” Rather than saying someone is “a schizophrenic,” or “I’m a schizophrenic,” say “they/I have schizophrenia."
Beyond this, it’s important to provide a positive and safe environment for those with mental illnesses to share their stories.
If someone opens up to you, the following guidelines are important to follow:
Sharing stories and anecdotes is an important way to overcome stigma. “I fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD on Facebook. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it for me,” said Angela Christie Roach Taylor. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Michael Phelps, Taraji P. Henson, and Lady Gaga have also spoken about their stories, bringing mental health into everyday conversation.
We need to start talking openly about mental health and normalize mental health treatment just like other health care treatments.
Additionally, to mitigate the harmful effects of the media, it’s all of our duties to call out a news story, movie, or TV show if it crosses the line by using stigmatizing language.
Lastly, education is crucial. Just by reading this article, you’ve already shown that you’re aware and want to learn more. Keep on doing so—learning about the stigma of mental health and ways to mitigate it is imperative in order to help those suffering from its consequences.
Dingfelder, Sadie F. “Stigma: Alive and Well.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, June 2009, www.apa.org/monitor/2009/06/stigma.
“Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 24 May 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477.
“Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness.” Stigma and Discrimination, 2020, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination.
“The Health Crisis of Mental Health Stigma.” The Lancet, 12 Mar. 2016, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)00687-5/fulltext.
Zoppi, Lois, and Taisha Caldwell-Harvey2. “Mental Health Stigma: Definition, Examples, Effects, and Tips.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 9 Nov. 2020, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/mental-health-stigma#how-to-overcome.
“Where Does the Stigma in Mental Health Come From?” Destination Hope , 26 Apr. 2017, destinationhope.com/stigma-mental-health-come/.