What are stigmas?

Mental illnesses can be difficult to handle. Treatment and recovery requires time, effort, patience, and a lot of understanding and support. Unfortunately, those who suffer from mental illnesses often have to deal with much more than just their illness-- they also often suffer from the effects of stigmas, negative representations or stereotypes that unfairly label people with mental illness. These ideas can be extremely harmful, and are evident in almost every aspect of society, from stigmatizing language in everyday conversation to inaccurate media portrayals of mental illnesses and the people who live with them.

How are stigmas harmful?

  • Stigmas are more than just attitudes or thoughts. There are real world consequences for those suffering from mental illnesses that can affect how they live, how they feel, and their relationships with others. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be harassed and discriminated against in terms of housing and employment, and they are more likely to be socially excluded.
  • Stigmas perpetuate fear. People often fear what they don’t understand. Most of the time, stigmas stem from misconceptions or confusion about mental illness. Many people assume that mental illnesses make a person dangerous or unfit for society. In fact, mental illnesses have been referred to as “invisible” illnesses because it isn’t obvious whether a person has one or not. Most people with mental illnesses can and do live normal, healthy, and productive lives.
  • Stigmas can be a barrier to treatment. Even though 1 in 5 people in the U.S. suffer from some type of mental illness or disorder, only a third will seek treatment. Some won’t even discuss their illness with a friend or loved one for fear of losing their support systems. Internalization of stigmatizing ideas can also lead to just as harmful self-stigma, which causes many to feel ashamed and embarrassed about themselves and their illness.

How can you stop stigmas?

  • Get educated. Making an effort to understand mental illnesses and the people they affect is the first step in eliminating stigmas. Recognize that mental illnesses are not personal weaknesses, but are biological disorders.
  • Be supportive. If a friend or family member approaches you about their mental illness, listen to them. Be there if they need help. Let them know you care and are concerned about their well-being.
  • Avoid stigmatizing language. Words like “crazy” or "psycho" are very offensive and can do serious damage to people living with mental illnesses. Educate others when you hear stigmatizing language, and explain how their words can be harmful.
  • Promote awareness. Be an advocate for education about mental illness and changing stereotypes. Support efforts to provide mental health resources and services to those in need. Through your actions, you can make a difference.

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