Updated: May 12, 2022
What is Stigma?
When you need help, it seems easier to go to an urgent care doctor for a sinus infection or a sore throat compared to going to a therapist for depression or anxiety. Why is this the case? It is because of stigma. Stigma seems to be a commonly used term, but not everyone understands what it means or how widespread it is. Stigma is essentially having negative thoughts and attitudes about something. People can have stigma towards many things, including race, sexuality, religion, or gender. But it can also be stigma towards mental illness and physical or mental disabilities. Mental illness stigma involves discriminating against individuals for their mental health problems. Physical illness stigma involves discriminating against individuals for their physical problems. While these types of stigma are similar, physical illness stigma can feel different as most physical illnesses are outward and harder to hide. Mental health conditions can be hidden, but the feelings of shame and isolation can be the same. This blog will focus more on the stigma surrounding mental illness, and ways to combat this. We will focus on two types of mental illness stigma: social stigma, and internalized/self stigma.
Feeling weird about going to a therapist may be due to social stigma. Social stigma is when others have negative attitudes towards mental illness. This can be indirect, such as people treating you differently if you go to a “shrink”, or avoiding you altogether for seeking therapy. It can also be directly observed, like the way the media portrays people with mental illness. Many movies make the villains mentally ill, or make the least-liked character have mental health concerns. Stigma can also be seen in certain insults, like calling someone “retarded”. Using a derogatory term to insult someone is unacceptable and needs to stop. Insulting someone for their mental illness, even in an indirect or subtle way, will make them feel marginalized. Mental illness is common and individuals struggling with mental illness should not be made to feel less-than anyone else. Social stigma is harmful and can make many people afraid to get help. It is important that we begin treating others with respect, no matter their mental health diagnoses.
Internalized stigma or self-stigma is when the person struggling with mental-health issues begins to have negative thoughts about themselves. Self-stigma can look like self-hate and self-blame for a condition that is out of their control. The individual may feel incompotent, and unlovable due to their mental illness. This can be even more harmful than social stigma because there is no escaping it. Self-stigma can lead to feelings of shame. Shame involves negative self-evaluation that can then lead to isolation. It may be easier for the person to be alone as opposed to others who do not understand them. Shame can also lead to feelings of worthlessness, which can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. This makes the person feel worse about themselves, and makes them even less likely to get help.
This needs to change! The first step is being aware of the way we think about and talk about mental illness. Then, we need to speak up. We can educate each other about how common mental illness is, and that it should not be thought of as a bad thing. Awareness and education are great first steps, but then there must be compassion. In a world filled with so much hate, we need to start showing each other some love. Mental illness is so common, and it can feel completely isolating when stigma is present. If we start the conversation, and show each other love, stigma will begin to fade away. If stigma goes down, help-seeking will go up and our loved ones can get the support they need.