Dealing with the Stigma of Mental Illness – Do’s and Don’ts

Living with a psychiatric disorder is challenging enough; interacting with people who are fearful or hold negative views of mental illness can make life even more difficult. If you've been diagnosed with a mental health condition, you may find that it impacts the way others interact with you due to the stigma often associated with mental illness. Whether it's overhearing a thoughtless colleague refer to you as "crazy" or feeling the sting of being passed over for a promotion you otherwise would have been awarded, the stigma of mental illness can cut deep.

Society's Stigma

The stigma associated with mental illness often has a direct impact on a person's quality of life. The reluctance to socialize or work with someone who suffers from a psychiatric disorder leads to discrimination in many areas, including employment, medical care, housing, higher education, criminal justice, and social relationships.

Attitudes that suggest stigma include the beliefs that people living with mental health issues are violent or dangerous, lazy, weak, undisciplined, less intelligent, or unable to contribute at work or home. While some of those descriptive terms may fit certain mentally ill individuals, they often do not.

Self-imposed Stigma

It's not uncommon for someone living with a psychiatric diagnosis to internalize society's negative perception of mental illness. One published study revealed that 53% of medical students diagnosed with depression reported the belief that disclosing their illness would be risky. Third and fourth year students in the same study said they would feel "less intelligent" if they sought help for their depression [1].

Additional research supports the idea of self-imposed stigma. For example, a study of young male athletes found that stigma was the most significant barrier to seeking help for a mental illness [2]. Another study suggests that 36% of people with a serious mental health condition report having attitudes that reflect a self-imposed or internalized stigma, such as the perception that they're incurable [3].

Stigma by Association

The negative perceptions surrounding psychiatric illnesses don't only affect the person living with the disorder; it affects friends and family as well. For example, a study of relatives of schizophrenia patients revealed the relatives had experienced discrimination based on their loved one's diagnosis [4]. Stigma by association, sometimes called "courtesy stigma", can have negative psychological implications for family members as well. Researchers found that mothers who had children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) felt stigmatized and socially isolated [5].

Dealing with the Stigma - Do's and Don'ts

  • Do get treatment. If you suspect you're suffering from a psychiatric disorder but are reluctant to get help because you fear the stigma associated with mental illness, it's critical to set those worries aside. It can be scary to admit you need professional help, but the cost of not treating the problem can be significantly higher. Untreated illnesses, like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often have debilitating effects. In some cases, the emotional pain associated with these disorders can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A mental health professional can evaluate you and develop a treatment plan that will reduce or even eliminate your symptoms.
  • Don't internalize the stigma. When you hear stigmatizing remarks or experience negative reactions from others, you may start to internalize those derogatory messages. Regain control over your self-image by getting the facts about your disorder. You may be surprised to discover you're harboring your own damaging misconceptions.
  • Do educate others. The stigma that surrounds mental illness, as well as the fear it generates, often springs from ignorance or lack of information. People may believe that a psychiatric disorder like depression stems from a character flaw or laziness. Help overcome others' reluctance to socialize or work with you by explaining that most mental illnesses have a strong biological component, such as genetics or a chemical imbalance. Be open to answering their questions and respectfully dispelling misunderstandings about your disorder.
  • Don't withdraw from the people you love. The stigma of mental illness can be very lonely. However, it's still very important that you receive support and understanding from the people you care about. If you're reluctant to let them know about your disorder, start by confiding in a few trusted people, like a family member or close friend. Once you're more comfortable, you can extend that circle to include others, like valued work colleagues.
  • Do empower family and friends to be advocates. Your loved ones may already be feeling stigma by association. Let those around you know that it's okay to speak out when they are treated differently because of your diagnosis.
  • Don't ignore the value of connecting. Make a point to seek out others who struggle with a similar mental health condition. These connections will reinforce the reality that you are not alone or isolated. Whether you sit down for coffee with a friend who shares the same illness or join a support group, you'll benefit from the empathy and support of others who live with similar challenges. If you don't know anyone living with the same condition or cannot find a local support group, don't hesitate to check out online support forums or bulletin boards. Your therapist or treatment provider is also a great source for finding appropriate groups.
  • Do be the positive face of your disorder. One strategy for removing stigma is to interact with others in a positive way. Avoid using negative statements that support stereotypes. Don't say things like, "Don't mind me; I'm a mental case" or "It's time to take my anti-crazy medication."
  • Don't define yourself by your diagnosis. You are not your mental illness. The language you use with others and in your own mind shapes how others view you and how you view yourself. For example, if you're always saying "I'm depressed", those words will begin to define your life. Rather, choose to say "I live with depression." It's a critical distinction to make when it comes to breaking down negative images surrounding mental illness.
  • With just over 25% of Americans having a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, the impact of the stigma associated with mental illness touches many lives. If you live with depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, or another psychiatric condition, you have the power to combat negative stereotypes and improve the quality of your life as well as the lives of those you love.
Posted on December 31st, 2012

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