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Breaking the Stigmas: Understanding and Overcoming Mental Health Barriers

Stigma is when someone views you negatively due to a characteristic that they considered to be a disadvantage. Stigmas with mental health occur when someone has a negative belief about a person with a mental illness. Unfortunately, people who live with a mental illness often report experiencing stigmas on a regular basis. They may be viewed negatively, treated differently, or made to feel ashamed or embarrassed. Stigmas typically involve incorrect stereotypes which lead people to view those with a mental illness as “crazy,” make comments like “you can't be depressed, you're always so happy,” or wrongfully label someone with a mental illness as weak. Stigmas occur due to a lack of understanding, ignorance, misinformation, and prejudice. The media also plays a big role in strengthening stigmas by displaying false stereotypes about people with a mental illness, suggesting mental illness leads to violence and crimes, and wrongfully utilizing mental health diagnoses to explain behaviors. These inaccurate portrayals not only show millions of people in a bad light, but they also lead to the spread of dangerous misinformation. For example, many people would not guess that those with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Unfortunately, this bias often extends to the justice system where people with mental illness are treated as criminals, arrested, charged, and jailed for a longer time when compared to the general population.

There are different types of stigmas. Public stigma refers to the negative or discriminatory attitudes and beliefs that others have about mental illness. Self-stigma is when individuals with a mental illness have negative attitudes and internalized shame about their own condition. Structural stigma is a systematic form of stigma that involves policies of government and private organizations that limit opportunities for people with mental illness. 


A lot of harm can come from stigmas. A person who is stigmatized may be treated differently, excluded, labeled, and be more likely to face discrimination. This can lead to bullying, violence, and increased feelings of isolation which may ultimately exacerbate symptoms. Many people often note that dealing with the stigma and discrimination is oftentimes harder than dealing with the mental illness. People can also begin to take on the misinformed and unfair view of others which can negatively impact their self-esteem and prevent them from seeking treatment, withdrawal from others, or turn to substances. Many cultures also have an inherent stigma against mental health issues which can make it even more difficult for the individual to seek help and can foster feelings of shame. Individuals who struggle with self-stigma are more likely to experience reduced hope, lower self-esteem, increased psychiatric symptoms, difficulties with social relationships, reduced likelihood of sticking with treatment, and increased work difficulties. Stigmas on mental health also impact politics, charitable fundraising, support for local services, funding for mental health research, and interpersonal relationships. Loved ones may also face many stigmas as well. For example, they may internalize stigma and blame themselves or they may fear that others may blame them or reject the family. 


If you or a loved one is experiencing stigma due to a mental illness some tips include: 

  • Get treatment. Don't let the fear of being labeled prevent you from seeking help. Treatment can provide relief by helping you reduce symptoms. 

  • Don't let stigmas create self-doubt and shame. Seeking counseling, educating yourself about the illness, and connecting with others can help increase self-esteem and reduce self-judgment.

  • Try not to take it personally. Stigmas are often a result of misinformation and are usually spread by those with little to no experience with mental illness. 

  • Socialize. Your friends, family members, or other members in your community can be great people to go to for support. 

  • Avoid labeling yourself with the illness. Instead of saying “I am schizophrenic” try saying “I am a person who is living with schizophrenia.” You are not the illness. 

  • Join a support group. Support groups often have resources that may help educate family members, loved ones, and others about mental illness. In addition, it can be helpful to connect with others who are experiencing similar situations. 

  • Speak out. Consider expressing your thoughts, opinions, and knowledge when the opportunity presents itself and share your story. 

People living with mental illness deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. In order to reduce mental illness stigma, it is important to educate yourself, take action, and report cases of sigma. Some tips for reducing stigma include: 

  • Talk openly about mental health and spread mental health awareness.

  • Educate others by responding to misperceptions and sharing facts.

  • Be conscious of language.

  • Speak up if you see discrimination or bullying.

  • Normalize mental health treatment.

  • Show compassion to those who live with a mental illness.

  • Choose empowerment over shame.

Judgment from others often stems from a lack of understanding rather than facts. Learning to accept your mental illness, seeking support, obtaining treatment, and educating yourself and others can help reduce stigmas.

Written By,

Tierney Puig, LPC



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