Fighting the Stigma of Mental Health

Mindful Healing_Fighting the Stigma of Mental Health

Stigma refers to the negative social views that are associated with a particular circumstance or quality. Within the realm of mental health, this is the feeling of, or negative perception about, a person with a mental health issue. Stigma is so pervasive that it is built into our colloquialisms; statements like “he’s crazy,” are used to describe bad behavior, which then creates an association between bad behavior and experiencing a disorder. This is unconstructive and can lead to discrimination both towards others and the self. Stigma creates many complications and misunderstandings about mental health.

Consequences of Stigma

Stigma can present a number of issues. For one, it makes people less understanding about other people’s suffering or conditions or causes people to blame others for their conditions. Let’s use another colloquialism to demonstrate this process. The phrase “she’s just anxious” can be used to dismiss the reactions of someone who experiences an anxiety. There are some major implications to that statement. It ascribes the characteristic of the disorder to define the person. We don’t describe someone diagnosed with cancer as “she is cancer” or someone who currently has the flu as “she is flu,” because we don’t blame the person for their health condition. The more proper phrasing that eliminates blame is “she experiences anxiety.”

The research shows some other jarring data about stigma. In addition to creating blame, negative views, and misunderstandings about mental health, it also causes people to ostracize those with mental health issues and isolate them. Research also shows that increased stigma makes mental health conditions worse. Sociologists and anthropologists have observed that societies that are more accepting of those with mental health issues tend to have people who have less severe symptoms and easier recoveries than societies with less acceptance.

Another challenge with stigma is that it is not just an external process towards others. We internalize stigma, which means that if we ever experience a mental health condition, we ostracize ourselves for having a health problem. Stigma is one of the primary barriers for those seeking help because not only do they have to deal with the challenges of mental health issues, they experience shame for having one in the first place.

Why Do Stigmas Persist?

There are lots of reasons. Part of it is that in a history of misunderstanding, the science of psychology is very young in Western society. The notion that mental health disorders are stress reactions is relatively new. The history of mental health has historical stigmas, misperceptions, and other prejudices that are passed down from generation to generation. The main book for diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used to have homosexuality as a diagnosis despite it being a very normal part of our diversity in sexuality.

Another challenge comes in with public education and awareness. Despite the fact that we, as a species, all have different capacities and challenges with our abilities to think, emote, and process, mental health is not a normative subject in any K-12 program or even in universities. Some notions of mental health disorders and what they are have only just begun to enter the public perception.

Another contributing factor to stigma comes from our model for treating mental health issues. Like the vast majority of health issues in the United States, the funding for treatment of mental health disorders comes via health insurance statistics. Health insurance companies presently operate on the “disease” model of mental health, rather than viewing it in a holistic manner. In a disease model you either (1) have a disease and are unhealthy, or (2) you don’t have a disease and are healthy. However, the science shows that mental health disorders are likely normal stress reactions to unhealthy circumstances, rather than an unhealthy process. For a great essay with more details click on why disorders are not diseases.

Another source of stigma comes from the multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Let’s unpack that loaded statement. First, there is massive stigma towards pharmaceuticals in general that prevent people from taking helpful medication. Pharmaceuticals have a role in mental health in creating adjustments to disordered neurochemistry and is not a reflection of anything right or wrong with a person. They help a lot of people and I am of the belief that people should take them if they help lead to a healthier, better life. The problem is in the campaign to medicate misery and anxiety as a whole. Uncomfortable emotions are major communicators that tell us about our world, environment, and needs. The notion that one is experiencing depression, trauma, or anxiety and, thus, is unhealthy is untrue. Learning how to understand and process our feelings and learning to adapt to our environment are important developmental milestones that lead to long-term healthier outcomes. Misery is not a sickness.

There are other major sources of stigma and this blog does not have the room to address them all. Culture, family, and knowledge are all intertwined. Just remember, fighting stigma starts at home. The more open and honest you can be about your own mental health, the more capable you are of offering courage and understanding for others to do the same.

Common Incorrect Prejudices Against Anxiety and Depression

It is important to identify misconceptions and realize why they are inaccurate. There is the notion that people suffering from depression lack willpower and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Another misconception is that people suffering from anxiety have a weak personality, lack courage, or are just indecisive. There is no truth to either of those statements and the mentality of “just deal with it,” does nothing to actually fix legitimate psychological struggles. Anxiety and depression are not due to a lack of willpower or weakness. Nobody chooses depression or anxiety. There is strength to those who are surviving their struggle, and courage to working through it.

Coping with the Stigma

Begin with awareness. It starts with learning to differentiate between what are common misconceptions as opposed to what reflects reality. Know that whatever you’re experiencing or that others are experiencing isn’t due to some huge flaw but the result of some sort of internal reaction to environmental factors. If you are struggling with a mental health issue, you may experience fear of labels or judgment. If someone you know or love is struggling, you may struggle with your judgments towards that person’s plight. Those experiences of fear are ok and natural; how you respond to it will help determine the outcomes. Being able to work through fear and accept that what is going on is real, and not a reflection of value, is huge. Being able to lend a compassionate hand and listen to what’s going on can also make a big difference. Get treatment for anxiety or depression. Stigma doesn’t only come from others; you must fight your own stigmas. You are not alone, and you don’t have to be alone. Also, do not identify yourself with your own depression or anxiety. We are much more than the issues that challenge us.


If you live in Portland or the Portland area and want information or help with Anxiety Disorder and/or Depression,