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Mental illness stigma

9-minute read

If you or someone close to you is experiencing a mental health emergency and is at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Stigma in mental illness is having an unfair attitude or belief about someone with mental health challenges.
  • Stigma can make people with mental illnesses feel ashamed or excluded.
  • Stigma usually comes from not understanding mental illnesses.
  • Stigma can cause people to feel distressed and sometimes stop them from asking for help.
  • Everybody can help fight stigma by educating themselves about mental illnesses.

What is mental illness stigma?

Stigma in mental illness happens when someone has an unfair attitude or belief about a person with mental health challenges.

The meaning of the word stigma is a mark, a stain or a blemish. Mental health stigma can happen when someone stereotypes or labels a person with mental health challenges based on their symptoms or illness.

People with mental illness may face stigma. They may be viewed in a negative way, treated differently and made to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their mental illness. Stigma can also lead to discrimination at work or in a social context, and this can make mental illness worse.

What are examples of mental illness stigma?

Examples of mental illness stigma include when people make comments such as “You’re crazy,” “She’s schizophrenic,” or “You can’t be depressed; you’re so happy,”.

Other examples include when a person with mental illness is made fun of or called weak for seeking help.

Stigma usually involves incorrect stereotypes. People with mental illness may be considered ‘scary’, ‘comical’ or ‘incompetent’.

A person with anxiety may be labelled as being weak rather than having an illness, and some people may believe they could just ‘snap out of it’. People living with schizophrenia can be called violent.

Why does stigma exist?

Stigma happens from a lack of understanding of mental illness, through ignorance and misinformation. It can also happen because some people have negative attitudes or beliefs (prejudice) towards mental illness. This can lead to discrimination.

Some mental health professionals might also have negative beliefs about the people they care for — this is also considered stigma.

Media can play a part in strengthening stigma by:

  • showing inaccurate stereotypes about people with a mental illness
  • connecting mental illness to criminal behaviour and violence
  • wrongly using metal health diagnoses to explain behaviours

For example, if a part of the media links mental illness with violence, this helps 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. They might be labelled because of their illness, making them more likely to face discrimination.

Dealing with the effects of being treated differently can increase feelings of isolation and make mental illness worse. Many people say dealing with stigma and discrimination is harder than dealing with mental illness itself.

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

Stigma can cause people with mental illness to:

  • feel discriminated against
  • miss out on work or housing
  • be bullied or excluded from social groups
  • become a victim of violence
  • feel unworthy

Some cultures have an inbuilt stigma against mental health issues and this can make it difficult for a person to seek and get help. It can also can cause feelings of shame in the family.

How can I deal with stigma?

Here are some tips 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.
  • Don’t take it personally — Most discrimination comes from people who don’t understand or have little or no experience of mental illness.
  • Use facts — Mental illness is common and is not a sign of weakness. Learn some useful facts and figures and tell people about it.
  • Stand up to negative stereotypes and misinformation — Set the record straight when you hear false or negative information.
  • Tell your story (if you want) — Speaking out can have a positive impact, especially if it means you stop feeling ashamed when it comes to your mental illness.
  • Join a support group — It can be useful to meet others in the same situation. Support groups often have resources that may help educate family members and others about mental illness.

If you or someone close to you is experiencing an emergency or is at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

If you suffer from stigma you can speak with:

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How can I reduce stigma?

Everyone can help reduce mental illness stigma by taking action, getting educated and reporting cases of stigma. People living with mental illness should be respected and accepted. They deserve the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Some tips to reduce stigma include:

  • Call out myths when negative stereotypes come up in conversation or in the media — you can speak up and educate people so that it is no longer accepted.
  • Report examples of stigma you see in the media to SANE StigmaWatch.
  • Think about the words you use when describing yourself or others. Avoid insensitive and hurtful words and words that define a person by their condition.
  • If you or someone has bipolar disorder, say “I have” or “someone has bipolar disorder” rather than “I’m bipolar” or “someone is bipolar”.
  • Speak up if you see examples of discrimination or bullying. Discrimination in the workplace against someone with mental health issues is against the law in Australia under the Disability Discrimination Act.
  • Check your own attitudes towards people with mental illness.

Resources and support

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

LETS TALK raises awareness around the need to talk about mental health and remove stigma in the community. They have many initiatives on their website.

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For urgent counselling assistance, if you believe that someone is in danger of suicide, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Do you prefer another language other than English?

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

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

Last reviewed: December 2023

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