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Mental illness stigma

8-minute read

What is mental illness stigma?

In relation to mental illness, stigma is when someone is marked or discredited somehow, or reduced from being a whole person to being a stereotype or labelled as a collection of symptoms or a diagnosis (e.g. ‘psychotic’).

The meaning of the word stigma is a mark, a stain or a blemish.

People with mental illness may face stigma — they may be viewed in a negative way, treated differently, and made to feel ashamed or worthless, as if they are somehow less than other people. Stigma can also lead to discrimination, and this in turn can make mental illness worse.

What are examples of mental illness stigma?

When someone with a mental illness is called ‘dangerous’, ‘crazy’ or ‘incompetent’ rather than unwell, it is an example of a stigma.

It’s also stigma when a person with mental illness is mocked or called weak for seeking help.

Stigma often involves inaccurate stereotypes. People with mental illness may be characterised as being more violent than the rest of society. A person with anxiety may be labelled as being cowardly rather than having an illness. People with depression may be told to ‘snap out of it’. People living with schizophrenia are incorrectly described as having a ‘split personality’. These are all examples of stigma against people with mental illness.

Why does stigma exist?

Stigma arises from a lack of understanding of mental illness (ignorance and misinformation), and also because some people have negative attitudes or beliefs towards it (prejudice). This can lead to discrimination against people with mental illness.

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.

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, leaving them marginalised.

They may become labelled by their illness, and so become vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination.

Dealing with the effects of prejudice and discrimination is distressing and can exacerbate mental illness. Many people say dealing with this is harder than dealing with mental illness itself.

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

Stigma can lead people with mental illness to be discriminated against and miss out on work or housing, be bullied, excluded from social groups, or become a victim of violence.

Some cultures have an inbuilt stigma against mental health issues, and this can make it difficult for a person to seek and get help and may give rise to shame. Mental Health Australia runs the Embrace Project, which offers resources and support for mental health services for consumers and carers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

How to deal with stigma

Here are some ways to deal with stigma.

Don’t avoid getting treatment

Don’t let your fear of being labelled or discriminated against, stop you from seeking help and treatment.

Don’t believe that you are your illness

Someone with a broken ankle is not a broken ankle — 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.

Defend negative stereotypes and misinformation

Set the record straight when you hear false or negative information. You can report examples of mental illness stigma you see in the media to SANE StigmaWatch.

Tell your story (if you want)

The more mental illness remains hidden, the more people think it must be something to be ashamed of. People speaking out can have a positive impact. You can choose how much you reveal about your life. When people get to know someone with mental illness it helps reduce stigma.

Join a support group

You may find it helpful to join a support group of one of the mental health organisations. It can be useful to meet others in the same situation, and support groups often have resources that may help educate family members and others about mental illness.

Reducing stigma

Everyone can help reduce stigma about mental illness.

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

Report examples of stigma you see in the media to SANE StigmaWatch.

Be mindful about the words you use when describing yourself or others, avoiding insensitive and hurtful words, and words which define a person by their condition.

Speak up when you hear people make inappropriate comments about mental illness. People living with mental illness should be respected and accepted just like everyone else.

People with mental health problems are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as everybody else. Challenge it if you see examples of discrimination or of bullying. Discrimination in the workplace against someone with mental health issues is against the law in Australia under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Resources and 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

If you want to learn more about how to deal with stigma or report stigma, visit the SANE Australia website. You can report stigma by filling out an online report form or calling SANE StigmaWatch on (03) 9682 5933.

Mental Health Australia’s Embrace Project offers resources and support for mental health services for consumers and carers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

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

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2021

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