Stigma and Mental Health: What You Should Know

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About one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. One in 25 live with a serious mental illness. Despite its prevalence, there is still a strong stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma occurs when a person has negative attitudes about someone based on a distinguishing characteristic, such as mental illness. It can lead to a number of negative consequences.

For one, a person who feels stigmatized may become ashamed and isolate themselves. They may begin to believe their condition is their fault. It may even cause a person to avoid or delay treatment. Stigma often comes from a lack of understanding. By learning more about mental illness and understanding the implications of stigma, we can begin to remove some of the barriers to treatment and recovery for those struggling.

Types of Stigma

There are three main types of stigma surrounding mental health.

Public stigma

First, there is public stigma. Public stigma refers to the stereotypes or negative beliefs that people have about people with mental illness. One common misconception about people with mental illness is that they are dangerous. Mental illness does not cause a person to be violent. In reality, people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

Another common stereotype about those with mental illness is that they are incompetent. Mental illness does not define a person’s intelligence, and many people with mental health conditions are smart with successful careers.

A stereotype becomes prejudice when people agree with or negatively react to the stereotypes. When people act on prejudiced beliefs, it becomes discrimination. Discrimination against people with mental illness can include avoiding or withholding employment or housing opportunities.


Self-stigma refers to the stereotypes and negative beliefs that people with mental illness have towards themselves. Like public stigma, self-stigma refers to stereotypes and negative assumptions, but instead of being directed to others, it is towards themselves. One common stereotype that people often internalize is that their condition is a character flaw. 

Believing the stereotypes can lead to low self-esteem or low self-efficacy. It may then cause them to avoid certain behaviors, like seeking housing or employment.

Institutional Stigma

Institutional stigma involves policies that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. One example of institutional stigma is fewer mental health services relative to other health care services.

Coping With Stigma

  • Get Treatment. Most people with mental illness can benefit from treatment, whether it includes therapy or medications.
  • Join a Support Group. Connecting with others can be a great way to cope with stigma. Engaging with a community of people with similar struggles can help you feel less alone.  
  • Avoid equating yourself with your illness. Do your best to remember that you are not your mental illness; you have a mental illness.

Fighting Stigma

According to NAMI, there are many ways we can fight stigma. For one, talking openly about mental health. By sharing our own experiences regarding our mental well-being, we can let others know they are not alone.

Another way to fight stigma is through education. As previously mentioned, stigma often comes from a lack of understanding. Educating ourselves and others about mental illness can help us remove inaccuracies from our thinking. It is can also teach us to be more mindful about the words we use when talking about mental health.

And finally, showing compassion towards those who may be struggling with their mental health. Remember that people with mental illness are not only dealing with the symptoms of their condition, but they are also coping with stigma.

Mental Health Resources

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-TALK (4357) for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

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