The Relentless Sting of Stigma

Mental illnesses are twice as common as diabetes. 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, denies their dignity and deems them unworthy of respect. It perpetuates prejudice and shame. As a result, it stands between people struggling with mental illnesses and opportunities to pursue stability.

Although our society has taken significant steps that have encouraged open conversation about mental wellbeing, many who are dealing with serious mental health conditions continue to face the ramifications of harmful beliefs and attitudes on a daily basis. A 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open found that stigma related to most mental illnesses—including the most life-altering mental health conditions—remained steady or even increased between 1996 and 2018.

The sting of stigma adds to the challenges that those managing mental health issues continually face. 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—and it can hurt not only individuals but entire communities.

Understanding how falsehoods and discriminatory viewpoints spread is the first step in helping to stem the tide of stigma avoid unknowingly contributing to it.

Creating Isolation

Connecting with others is a vital aspect of wellbeing. 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 about mental illness, such as the idea that all those living with serious mental health conditions are violent or dangerous, often foster 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 heart condition 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.”

Perpetuating 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 dealing with 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 living with a serious mental illness as a neighbor. Even more (71%) were unwilling to work closely with a person dealing 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.

Causing Self-Stigma

The negative attitudes and inaccurate stereotypes that stem from stigma are powerful. They also are contagious, and 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.

The Well provides a community where individuals living with serious mental illnesses are accepted and receive support that helps them pursue stability. Through the Well, they find a haven from stigma and build connections with others who understand and care. You gift will continue to provide them with resources and belonging. Give now.

Read More About Stigma

Six Ways to Stop Stigma

Four Ways That Stigma Spreads

Speaking Differently and Speaking Up: Progress in the Fight Against Stigma

How Stigma Hurts Everyone

20 Ways You May Be Unknowingly Perpetuating Stigma

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