What is Mental Illness Stigma and How do You Overcome it?

Stigma is one of the largest obstacles to getting mental health care for teens as well as adults. No one wants to be judged or seen as having a problem. No one wants to be ostracized or looked down upon. To avoid this experience, teens struggling with symptoms might avoid getting care because of the response they fear from peers, friends, and family. In fact, many teens will hide their symptoms and struggles in order to appear to everyone that everything is fine. Yet, untreated psychological illness is risky. It can lead to suicide, self-harm, or harm to others. It can lead to deteriorating relationships and an inability to function.  In order to help teens access the care they need, mental illness stigma needs to be broken down within communities and across the country.


What is Mental Illness Stigma?


Look up the word “stigma” in the dictionary and you’ll find that it means, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. Stigma essentially means being shamed, humiliated, or dishonored.


Sadly, mental illness still carries the mark of shame and disgrace. There’s great emphasis in society placed on having a clear and intelligent mind. Society wants those who can play by the rules and keep life predictable and safe. However, those with mental illness have the potential of breaking those rules and leaving communities in disarray. Walk the streets of any major U.S. city and you’ll see homeless men and women talking to themselves, likely struggling with symptoms of mental illness. We might call them “crazy”, “wacko”, “nuts”, or “schizoid”.


But the truth is we simply don’t understand the mentally ill. They live a much different life, and we conclude that because they are “crazy” they might be dangerous, in turn, threatening our own way of life. Yet, stigmatizing someone is none other than discriminating them and a way to keep someone at a distance.


Mental Illness Stigma Is a Barrier to Treatment

So, if your teen is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, you might resist getting treatment. You wouldn’t want your child labeled as “crazy”  You wouldn’t want your teen being labeled with the same diagnosis as the homeless man down the street. Your teen wouldn’t want to be categorized as being “nuts”. So, neither you nor your teen do anything. You don’t call for help from a mental health professional and your teen decides not to talk about it much. You chalk it up to being a “phase” your teen is going through, and your teen follows suit and decides that it’s something that is going to pass.


However, imagine the opposite scenario:


Your teen is experiencing symptoms and instead of fearing judgment, you immediately get him the help he needs. Instead of a society that fears and distances themselves away from mental illness, you and your teen live in a society that promotes mental health. No one is judging anyone. Instead, mental illness simply means the need to see a doctor every once in awhile, just as you would when you break a leg or get the flu.


Sadly, we don’t live in that kind of world. Instead, mental illness stigma keeps parents and teens from getting the help they need. Potentially being stigmatized and judged for having an illness stands in the way of accessing mental health care.


Understanding Mental Illness Stigma can Help


Once people become aware of mental illness stigma it’s easier to see right through it. It’s easier to break the chains of stigma. But, even still, even with knowing the obstacle that stigma can become, the fear of being judged by friends and family can still keep someone from getting the help they need. For this reason, it’s important that everyone work towards breaking down stigma. And more importantly, it’s important that people move past stigma and get the help they need regardless.


If you’re a teen struggling with a mental illness or a parent, here are a few ways to help move past stigma and even help break it down:


  1. Recognize that you need help. Often, a stigma may not get in the way until you’re faced with a need to call for help. It’s then you’ll have to admit that you’re possibly struggling with a mental illness. And once you’re in treatment, you might not like the idea of having to talk about the difficulties you’ve faced. Yet, despite the judgments and opinions of others, mental health treatment can help you manage symptoms, learn more about the illness, and provide you with support to live a normal life. In fact, by breaking through barrier of mental illness stigma, people get the help they need.
  2. Connect with others who are struggling with the same challenges. When you’re at the beginning of seeking help, the stigma of mental illness might feel the strongest. However, once you’re past that point and you’ve made connection with others, it’s likely that you’ll hear that the stigma is no longer an issue. Forming relationships with others can be a significant part of recovery and sobriety.
  3. Keep your attention on treatment. If you’re past the beginning stages of getting mental health support and you’re still feeling stigmatized by others, place your focus on your health and treatment goals. Staying focused on your goal can help you ignore the effects stigma might have on your life.
  4. Make a plan. Remember that the journey of recovery is about you and not anyone else. If the stigma of mental illness continues to get in the way, shift your focus on where you are now in your recovery and where you want to be. Having a long-term plan can help plant the seed in your mind that at some point in the future you could be symptom-free.
  5. Participate in community events aimed at breaking the stigma of mental illness. Frequently, there are community organizations holding events that help break down the stigma of mental illness. Participating in these events can bring the company of those who have seen past the barrier of a stigma.


Reducing Mental Illness Stigma also Helps Break Down Barriers


Because mental illness stigma is a product of societal relationships and values, there are many organizations and people that are working towards changing the culture of society. They are working on helping others see just how important mental health treatment is. More importantly, they are working on letting the world recognize that people with mental illness are just like everyone else. They are no different.


Stella: For instance, Stella is a young adult with Bipolar Disorder. She has struggled with the mania and depression of that illness as well as the stigma she has experienced from peers from time to time. Stella is the resident artist for TeenMentalHealth.org.  In this video, she discusses her experiences of stigma and how that has affected her. She also discusses her art, friends, support, struggles, and successes. Stella is a great example of someone who is not letting mental illness stigma get in the way of treatment or her dreams.


Becca: Becca has had a rough upbringing. Her 18 years have already included homelessness, bullying, and living in various shelters. Eventually she was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as well as other disorders. With the right diagnoses, she obtained professional mental health assistance, and now she’s feeling empowered to beat the stigma of mental illness. She says in her video, “Ask anyone that knows me now. I’m the happiest girl because I know I’m getting the right support and help I need.”


Connor: Connor is a 20 year old student who struggles with sleep disorders. However, after going in to be treated for insomnia, he was also diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Connor describes in his video the difference between his level of anxiety and the level of anxiety of most people. He explains that while most people might experience anxiety at a 3 or 4 level, he experiences it at a 8 or 9 on a 10 point scale.


There are teens, parents, and caregivers around the world who are working on breaking down the stigma of mental illness. For instance, the LETS (Let’s Erase the Stigma) is a student-run club at Los Altos High School in Northern California. The club was designed to help students break down the stigma of mental illness and to create more freedom for them to ask for help when they need it, instead of putting up a façade that everything is alright. In the past, teens around the country have seen how building stress and feelings has too frequently ended tragically. The LETS Club and other similar student-run organizations are working to break that trend.


Here are a few other groups and organizations working to break down mental illness stigma:


Don’t Let Mental Illness Stigma Be a Barrier Among your Friends and Family


It can be difficult to begin talking about mental illness in a positive and healthy way if you’re surrounded by others who see mental illness as a “problem” or  a “disease” or worse, a “personal flaw”. It can sometimes take courage to stand up to friends and family and speak out mental illness in a new way. If you find the courage to do so, remember that there are organizations and people around the world who are doing the same work you are. If you’re feeling alone in the fight against mental illness stigma, make contact with others who are doing the same work.