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Mental health stigma

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What is mental health stigma?

A stigma can be like a mark, a stain or a blemish. People with mental illness may face stigma — they may be treated differently, as if they are somehow less than other people.

Stigma shows when someone with a mental illness is called 'dangerous', 'crazy' or 'incompetent' rather than unwell.

Stigma can lead people with mental illness to be discriminated against and miss out on work or housing, bullied or to become a victim of violence. It can also mean they don’t seek treatment when they need it.

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Why does stigma exist?

Stigma exists mainly because some people don't understand mental illness, and also because some people have negative attitudes or beliefs towards it. Even some mental health professionals have negative beliefs about the people they care for.

Media can also play a part in reinforcing a stigma by:

  • portraying inaccurate stereotypes about people with a mental illness
  • sensationalising situations through unwarranted references to mental illness
  • using demeaning or hostile language

For example, if a part of the media associates mental illness with violence, that promotes the myth that all people with a mental illness are dangerous. In fact, research shows people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

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How does stigma affect people with mental illness?

A person who is stigmatised may be treated differently and excluded from many things the rest of society takes for granted.

People with mental illness may also take on board the prejudiced views held by others, which can affect their self-esteem. This can lead them to not seek treatment, to withdraw frcom society, to alcohol and drug abuse or even to suicide.

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How to deal with stigma

Here are some ways to deal with stigma.

Don't believe that you are your illness

Someone with a broken ankle is not a brokenanklitic — they are more than their illness. So are you.

If you have bipolar disorder, say 'I have bipolar disorder' rather than 'I’m bipolar'. If you convince yourself first that you're a person, not a walking illness, others will find it easier to see you that way too.

Don't take it personally

Most discrimination comes from people who don't understand or have little or no experience of mental illness. Try to consider it as their problem, not yours.

Use facts

Mental illness is common. It is not a sign of weakness. Learn some useful facts and figures, and tell people about it.

Tell your story (if you want)

The more mental illness remains hidden, the more people think it must be something to be ashamed of. You can choose how much you reveal about your life.

Choose who you deal with

That's easier in some places than others. For example, it's hard to do that at work but much easier with friends. Some people get it when you talk to them; others never will.

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Reducing stigma

To help in reducing mental health stigma, it’s important to understand what someone with mental illness may be going through.

It's important to know that people with mental illness have the same rights as everybody else.

When negative stereotypes come up in conversation or in the media, you can actively dispel myths and educate people against harmful, inaccurate stereotyping.

Be mindful about the words you use when describing yourself and others, avoiding insensitive and hurtful words, such as 'nutter', 'loopy', 'crazy' and 'psycho'.

There are also organisations that can help you with dealing with mental illness stigma.

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Where to get support

If you suffer from stigma or know someone who does, help is available from:

  • mental health professionals, such as psychologists, counsellors or psychiatrists
  • local community health centres
  • local community mental health centres

You can also learn more here about how to deal with any stigma you face. If you want to report stigma, visit the SANE Australia website and fill out an online report form or call 1800 18 SANE (7263).

For immediate counselling assistance, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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Last reviewed: September 2019

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