The Sting of Stigma

The Sting of StigmaMental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Yet, even though these conditions affect one in five people in a year, they’re shrouded in stigma.

This stigma hurts millions of people every day—people like members of The Well Community. It tries to define them by their diseases and deems them unworthy of respect. It perpetuates prejudice and shame. As a result, it stands between people struggling with mental illnesses and opportunities for recovery.

The sting of stigma adds to the challenges that those managing mental health issues already face on a daily basis. From preventing them from seeking care to making it harder to find a place to live, stigma can negatively impact nearly every area of their lives.

Isolation

Connecting with others is important to a healthy life. But the negative attitudes and unjust stereotypes that stem from stigma can make it much harder for people managing mental illnesses to socialize and build relationships.

Myths—whether perpetuating the idea that a mental illness will “rub off” or spreading misconceptions about mental health issues and violence—all lead to fear. As a result, many people hesitate to get “too close” to those dealing with mental illnesses.

Friends and family may also distance themselves when they learn of a loved one’s mental illness. This leaves the person who’s struggling isolated and lonely. And, as people dealing with mental illnesses see those they care about shy away, they are often less likely to share about their condition. This creates a vicious cycle, leading to further isolation.

Discouraging Care

It would be unthinkable to tell someone with a thyroid condition or diabetes to skip their daily medication. Likewise, it is unhelpful to discourage those dealing with mental illnesses from getting medical care. But, that’s exactly what stigma does. Fear of what others will think about seeing a psychiatrist or taking medication can make it hard for those who are struggling to seek treatment. This fear can also prompt those receiving medical care to stop showing up for appointments or forgo their treatment plans.

In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Michael Friedman wrote, “The stigma of mental illness is perhaps the greatest barrier to care. It is preventable, and doing so would radically reduce suffering.”

Discrimination

The prejudice promoted by stigma leads to discrimination in the workplace and beyond. Employers can be hesitant to hire someone who manages a mental illness, or to promote them to a position with more responsibility. In addition, fear of unjust treatment on the job can prevent individuals managing mental health issues from seeking employment in the first place. This dual-sided stigma can also stand in the way of obtaining housing.

Those managing mental health issues can face discrimination not only from potential bosses and landlords, but also from prospective co-workers and neighbors. In a 2013 survey, over two-thirds (67%) of respondents were unwilling to have a person with a serious mental illness as a neighbor. Even more (71%) were unwilling to work closely with a person with a serious mental illness. When the majority of people don’t want to live near a person dealing with a serious mental health condition or collaborate with them on the job, it severely narrows the options of those managing mental illnesses.

Self-stigma

The negative attitudes and inaccurate stereotypes that stem from stigma are powerful. They also are contagious. Many times those wresting with mental illnesses internalize these ideas. They begin to see themselves as less worthy of respect than others and start to view their conditions as shameful.

This self-stigma is just as harmful as stigma from others. It, too, can prevent those dealing with mental health issues from pursuing relationships and seeking care.

Each day, members of The Well Community face the barriers of stigma on top of the many other challenges they face in dealing with mental illnesses. The Well Community provides a place where community members are safe from the sting of stigma. Help us continue to offer them a place to belong.

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