Mental Health Stigma: Is it Real?

StigmaAccording to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, experiences mental illness per year. That’s roughly 18.5% or 43.8 million individuals.

With the prevalence of mental illness, it is difficult for many of us to believe there is such a thing as ‘mental health stigma’.

After all, if so many of us suffer from it in a given year, it stands to reason we’d be more compassionate towards those undergoing treatment or people suffering from symptoms.

Unfortunately, mental health stigma is still very much alive and well. Words like ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’, ‘emotional’ get thrown around as insults, never taking into consideration those actually experiencing these issues.

Prejudice against people who can’t help but expose their mental health issues goes far beyond school yard bulling. It spills over into the workplace, higher education, and of course in relationships. People simply don’t want to “deal” with someone who is unstable or easily offended.

What is Stigma?

According to mental health professionals, there are two types of stigma: social stigma, and perceived stigma.

Social stigma is the discrimination and prejudicial attitudes towards someone who has been diagnosed with a specific psychiatric disorder. Whether through fewer job opportunities or direct discrimination.

Perceived stigma is the internalization of shame and low self-esteem of the sufferer. Perceiving that you are all alone in your battle and that others will judge you for your condition is perceived stigma.

Pervasiveness of Stigma

One recent survey conducted in the UK revealed how people really feel about individuals with serious mental health issues like schizophrenia and major depression. Of the respondents, most felt that people with these disorders are dangerous, unpredictable, and unemployable. They also felt that people suffering from eating disorders and substance abuse are solely responsible for their condition and that it is self-inflicted.

Obviously, mental health stigma is very real. And it negatively affects those who have no control over their condition. For people like myself who suffer from an anxiety disorder with depression, social distancing causes us to feel more isolated from others. We either don’t want to burden others with our ‘drama’ or feel like we’re very different from others and won’t be understood.

This stigma often increases the symptoms and worsens the condition.

The Media & Mental Health

Public figures also hold responsibility for furthering social stigma. In recent political campaigns, the Republican side of the isle, in particular, has repeatedly blamed ‘crazy’ people for mass murders and shootings. However, they never take the time to carefully inform the public of the context of the individual’s mental illness. This increases social distancing, and leaves those suffering isolated and lonely.

The same can be said of the press, entertainment, and comedic industries. Now, I’m not for extreme political correctness, but we cannot deny the role the language we use plays in preventing people from seeking care out of fear of diagnosis.

Why Does it Matter?

Exclusion, poor social support, lessened quality of life, and low self-esteem are all direct results of social stigma. It can also directly affect treatment outcomes and prevent people with emotional and mood problems from seeking help in the first place. As it turns out, many people don’t seek help for decades after symptoms present themselves, simply because they don’t want to be labeled ‘different’.

In the end, mental health stigma is very real indeed. Whether direct through prejudice or indirectly through socially accepted language and thought processes, it has created a wall between the “mentally healthy,” and the “mentally ill”.

As with all barriers and separation, it’s false. People suffering from mental health problems aren’t any different. They are human beings with emotions, feelings and dreams. They deserve to be treated as equals. Even the most prejudice person may at one time in their life suffer from depression or anxiety, so being open and compassionate is only right.

Through awareness, knowledge and acceptance, we can create a healthier country and world. It’s up to us to do it.

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