Imagine for a moment that an acquaintance tells you that she has a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. How might you respond? Would you feel uncomfortable? Would you perceive her differently than you did before? Perhaps your reaction would vary according to which disorder she has or how well you know her. Regardless of the particulars, studies demonstrate that most of us will react with fear, distancing, and rejection.
The Stain of Stigma
Stigma is another name for the negative stereotypes our culture attaches to a characteristic or behavior. Usually based on a combination of fear and false beliefs, stigma leads to judgment and discrimination. In the case of mental illness, these fears are rooted in unfounded beliefs that characterize people with mental illness as weak, bizarre, shameful, or violent.
Because our culture lacks understanding of mental disorders, it’s no surprise that these conditions remain shrouded in mystery and denial. The stigma of mental health diagnoses causes people to conceal their disorders. Fear of negative labels and disrespect leads them to hide the truth—sometimes even from themselves. And so the cycle of silence continues.
Tragically, fear of rejection prevents people in pain from seeking counseling and support. The majority (two thirds) of people with mental conditions don’t seek any treatment. Researchers report that stigma is the number one factor that keeps people from getting the help they need.
Knowledge: The Anti-Stigma
Discussion, awareness, and education can combat false assumptions. Each year in the United States, approximately 45 million people (about 1 person in 4) from every ethnic, occupational, social, and economic background experience a mental illness. That means that if you haven’t endured a mental illness yet, there's a good chance you will at some point during your lifetime.
There is increasing evidence that mental illnesses are similar to physical ailments in their pervasiveness and treatability. Like physical disease and injury, some mental disorders have a biological basis while others are prompted by life circumstances and environment.
Stigmatized perceptions of mental illness are beginning to emerge from the dark ages of ignorance and fear. Prominent figures and organizations like the surgeon general and the Department of Health publish statements and fact sheets to discourage stigma. Activist groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Mental Health America educate the public and advocate for mental health legislation. In the media, celebrities are coming forward with personal stories of depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. And we see television ads for medications like Cymbalta (for depression) and Paxil (for anxiety disorders) every day.
In spite of these efforts and increased visibility, the mental illness stigma remains strong. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Break the Silence, Break the Stigma
I am not ashamed to admit that I have suffered from depression. Sometimes this disclosure surprises my neighbors, friends, and counseling clients. They’re accustomed to hearing someone mention that they had the flu, skin cancer, or diabetes… but it’s rare to hear someone talk about agoraphobia or their latest depressive episode while chatting it up at the office water cooler. Talking about mental health problems is taboo, and stigma fuels the tendency to keep our mouths shut about our private struggles.
Silence won’t make these conditions go away. The challenges of mental health and illness affect us all, and talking about them can only dispel the myths and misinformation that surrounds them. I’m not alone in my history of depression. I can easily think of a dozen family members and friends who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cocaine addiction, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. No one is immune.
People with mental illness are people in my life, people that I love. They aren’t lunatics, and they aren’t dangerous. They’re just like you and me, and they—we—deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. If you have a mental illness, don’t be afraid to seek help from friends, family, doctors, or therapists. Remember that you are more than your illness, and you can find ways to cope.
It is my hope that others will join me in speaking out about the stigma that distorts our views of people who have mental disorders. As we become more informed and tolerant, stigma loses its power and, in turn, people with mental illness gain strength and dignity.
For ways to cope with stigma and links to programs to help end stigma, please visit the “Related Links” section that follows this article.