On Stigma

I don’t think there has ever been a time in which mental illness has not been stigmatized.  Merriam-Webster defines stigma as: “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.”  I see stigma on an almost daily basis.  For example, the easy way in which people throw around labels like, bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and crazy.  I often hear people say about someone who flip-flops their decisions that they are “so bipolar”.  Or, if someone simply likes to have a neat desk, they may be called OCD.  Something that does not seem quite right is often referred to as crazy, as are people who receive mental health treatment.

As many as 3 out of every 4 people with a mental illness report experiencing stigma, and in 1999 the US Surgeon General labeled stigma as the biggest barrier individuals have in receiving mental health care.  This stigma has even carried over to Medicaid and Medicare coverage.  Laws about Medicaid have long kept mental health care from being covered.  Medicare, on the other hand, has adjusted some of its inadequacies involving mental health care, however, Medicare was not affected by the parity laws put in effect with the Affordable Health Care Act.

With the recent uptake in mass shootings, the media has been covering mental illness more frequently.  The problem with this coverage is that it increases the stigma of mental illness.  People see these news reports, and are often led to believe that most people with a mental illness are dangerous and are at risk of becoming mass shooters themselves.  This assumption is simply incorrect.  Those with mental illness are much more likely to be a danger to themselves than to those around them.  People often assume that for someone to engage in mass murder, they must be mentally ill.  I would argue that it is possible to be brain washed into believing that a group of people must die without actually being clinically mentally ill.

In large part to the stigma society has against mental illness, 40% of adults with a mental illness did not receive treatment in the previous year.  Stigma is something that can come both from those around a person, or from within the self.  Self-stigma is just as, if not more, dangerous than public stigma.  To feel self-stigma causes someone to not only avoid seeking out help, but to feel deep levels of shame in regards to their mental illness, the shame in turn will often feed the illness.

There are three components to stigma, they are: stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination.  The stereotype of the mentally ill as being violent, weak of character, or almost inhuman feeds the prejudice that is often felt.  The prejudice leads to discrimination in the form of unemployment, care costs not being covered, and unfair laws.

There are many organizations working towards ending the stigma of mental illness, which range from formal organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to the semi-colon tattoo trend.  One of the ways that anyone with a mental illness can help end the stigma is by coming out about their mental illness to their family and friends.

Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.  It should not be stigmatized.  Mental illness, like arthritis, is not something anyone wants or chooses.  As a society, we need to become more aware and accepting of those with mental illness.


USA Today

National Institute of Health

Psychology Today



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