Visiting Clinical Psychologist at Psychological Sciences Institute
Many societies still hold attitudes that view those who have symptoms of mental health problems as unpredictable or violent. Unfortunately, these are the attitudes that feed discrimination and stigma towards individuals with mental health problems.
Stigma is when someone sees you in a negative light because of a personality trait or characteristic you possess that is thought to be, or in fact is a disadvantage. While mental health problems are not in any way the fault of the individual’s, people with such conditions are frequently met with stigma solely due to their mental health condition.
Mental health stigma can be categorized into two types: social stigma, which is seen in prejudice and discriminatory attitudes and behaviours towards people with mental health problems, mainly due to the psychiatric or diagnostic label they have been given. The other type of stigma which has received the attention of researchers is self-stigma (sometimes known as perceived stigma), which is the internalizing of perceptions of discrimination and other negative attitudes and beliefs by the individual suffering from the problem (Link, Cullen Struening & Shrout, 1989). Just as social stigma can affect the individual’s feelings of shame and hopelessness, self-stigma can significantly affect their self-esteem and even lead to poorer treatment outcomes (Perlick, Rosenheck, Clarkin, Sirey et al., 2001).
There are a few common social beliefs about mental health problems that perpetuate stigma in our society today. The first is that people with these conditions are dangerous and should be avoided- especially those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia, or substance dependence. The second is that people tend to believe that conditions such as substance abuse and eating disorders are brought upon the individual by him/herself. The third is that some people believe that individuals with mental health issues are normally hard to talk to. These beliefs then often lead to discrimination. Discrimination could be very direct, like in a case where someone makes a negative or ridiculing comment about you, your condition or your treatment. Or it could be more subtle and less intentional, such as being avoided because you are assumed to be violent, unsafe or unstable due to your mental health problem.
In addition to cultivating low self-esteem as mentioned above, stigma can also lead an individual to be less understood by their family, friends and co-workers, have fewer opportunities to work or excel in school or social activities, become victims of bullying and harassment, and become reluctant to seek help or treatment due to fostering the false belief that their problem may never improve or that they may never succeed in life.
Though mental health stigma has rooted itself well in our society due to the lack of open conversation and acceptance of mental health problems for what they are, there is still hope to tackle this issue, and below are some of the key ways both individuals who suffer from these conditions and others can make a difference.
Don’t let stigma generate shame and doubt. Self-stigma is a leading cause for people to shy away from seeking help and trying to reach their potential at work or school. One might misguidedly believe that their condition is a sign of misfortune or personal weakness. However, reaching out to someone such as friend, family member, counselor, psychologist or others with similar difficulties can help build self-esteem and overcome challenges and self-doubt.
Seek treatment. Seeking help and treatment may be one of the most challenging steps. If you are someone with a mental health problem or if you are caring for someone who has one, remember that you should not let the fear of being labeled prevent you from being open to treatment. Treatment, especially if it is early intervention, can help by relieving symptoms that interfere with daily functioning, and increasing coping and interpersonal skills.
Don’t let yourself be isolated. If you know someone with a mental health condition don’t let them be isolated. Though people are reluctant to tell those close to them about their condition, especially if it is a condition like schizophrenia, there may be people around them who would be glad to support them with compassion. Therefore, it is important to open up and reach out to those you can trust.
Don’t equate the individual with the illness. Those with a mental health condition are not the condition. It is not the only thing they are defined by. Therefore saying “I have schizophrenia” instead of “I’m a schizophrenic”, or saying “I have a substance use problem” instead of saying “I’m an addict” may be a good step towards reducing self-stigma as well as educating others about how individuals with mental health problems are affected by stigma (Mayo Clinic, 2014).
Finally, speak out and stand up against stigma. Whether you are someone who is going through a mental health condition or not, you can start to express the way you feel about the challenges of mental health problems, and how stigma contributes to these challenges. You can write to magazines, or on online blogs and columns to encourage others in similar situations to speak out as well.
These are some of the most fundamental ways we can break the barriers that hold us back from openly addressing mental health problems, and caring for those in need.