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Understanding the Stigma of Mental Illness


The stigma of mental illness continues to be one of the most prevalent barriers to individuals seeking treatment for mental illness. Evidence reveals that nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental disorder. It is obvious that mental health conditions affect millions of Americans each and every day. Furthermore, it continues to become more apparent that much of society views these struggling individuals as “dangerous”, “crazy”, or “bad people.” Stigma remains one of the most relentless hurdles for individuals living with a mental disorder.

Medical research continues to demonstrate the validity of mental illness but many people reject the evidence and thus stigma surrounding mental illness continues to halt individuals from seeking help. Most people who live with mental illness have experienced blame, guilt, and shame for their condition. Their symptoms are often referred to as “a phase” or a situation they can control. These ignorant perceptions lead to discrimination and added pressure to the existing pains of living with a mental illness.

Here are a few common statements that perpetuate the stigma of mental illness:

  • People with mental illness can control their condition and snap out of it.
  • Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses.
  • Mental health disorders are an excuse for poor or bad behavior.
  • People with mental health issues are weak-minded.
  • Addiction is a lack of willpower.
  • People with mental health disorders cannot handle stress.
  • People don’t recover from mental illness.
  • People experiencing mental health issues are angry, crazy, or psycho.
  • People with mental health disorders lack morals and are violent and dangerous.

Types of Stigma

Stigmas associated with mental illness are often divided into two different categories: social stigma and self-perceived stigma. Social stigma involves the prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes that others have around mental illness. Self-perceived stigma involves an internalized stigma that the individual with the mental illness struggles to overcome.

Studies on the public stigma of mental illness reveal that stigma is still widespread, even as more evidence to contradict the stigma has been made available. While many people accept the medical or genetic nature of a verified condition, the public often still has a negative view of those with mental health conditions.

Perceived stigma often includes internalized guilt and shame about suffering from a mental illness. Individuals struggling with self-perceived stigma often blame themselves and experience extreme feelings of self-judgment and hopelessness. A long-term study revealed that this type of internalized stigma leads to poor treatment outcomes.

Gender-Specific Mental Health Stigmas

Naturally, prevailing stigmas lead to individuals fearing disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination. These individuals suffering from mental illness are concerned that their disorder will damage their careers, relationships, and quality of life. Furthermore, men and women contend with different stigmas that often prevent them from seeking the treatment they need. Here are a few of the more gender-specific stereotypes and stigmas related to living with a mental health disorder.

Mental Health Stigma Among Men

The common characteristics of traditional masculinity include toughness, stoicism, strength, courage, and competitiveness. Fears of being labeled as a “sissy” or “wimp” often cause boys and men to perceive mental health disorders as weaknesses. Furthermore, this leads to many men ignoring their symptoms and reject help.

Mental health stigma for men can be especially staggering for men in professions that embody the traditional male traits. Military personnel, police force, firefighters, and other first responders often struggle with PTSD, depression, and even suicidal ideations. Unresolved traumatic experiences amongst first responders are often directly correlated with substance abuse. Most importantly, many first responders fear they may be perceived as unable to deal with the pressures of the job. These male professionals are more prone to suicide as these men often avoid seeking the help they need.

Mental Health Stigma Among Women

Women are not immune to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. While many men face societal judgment for displaying traditional feminine traits – gentleness, passivity, vulnerability, empathy, or emotionality – women are also criticized for displaying traditional masculine traits. These traits of aggression, competitiveness, and toughness are often frowned upon by members of society.

Excessive drinking, gambling, and sexual promiscuity are still unfairly associated and more socially acceptable amongst men. These female stereotypes can be especially difficult to overcome for mothers struggling with mental health disorders. The fear of being branded as an unstable or unfit mother often leads many women to hide their mental health disorders and avoiding treatment. While men often fear shame, women fear blame. No matter the fear, the stigma both men and women face regarding mental illness can be detrimental to all individuals seeking recovery.

Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness

No matter the gender, age, or ethnicity, we are all responsible for eliminating and spreading awareness on any stigma surrounding mental health. According to The World Health Report, conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), “The single most important barrier to overcome in the community is the stigma and associated discrimination towards persons suffering from mental and behavioral disorders.”

According to an article written by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, here are a few ways you can help end the stigma surrounding mental health disorders:

  • Educate yourself and others
  • Be conscious of the language you use regarding mental health
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness
  • Choose empowerment over shame
  • Be honest about treatment
  • Let the media and society know when they are stigmatizing
  • Don’t harbor self-stigma

Support and collective voice can cultivate courage, strength, persistence, and mental health treatment. No matter how you contribute to the mental health movement, we need these specific qualities to face the issues and fight the stigma. You can make a difference by simply knowing that mental illness is not anyone’s fault and by showing compassion to individuals suffering from mental health disorders.

Call the Agape Treatment Center admissions team at 888-614-0077 to learn more about what our addiction and mental health facilities can do for you or your loved one.

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