Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype). Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are common. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
Stigma can lead to discrimination. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding you because the person assumes you could be unstable, violent or dangerous due to your mental illness. You may even judge yourself.
Stigma involves any form of negative attitudes or discrimination against someone based on certain characteristics, such as a health condition or a mental illness. Although the term isn’t limited to mental conditions, mental health stigma is more prevalent and adverse.
This stigma makes the experience of a person already suffering from a mental illness more painful. It reduces the chances of people seeking out or receiving appropriate care and treatment. It is one of the significant risk factors contributing to poor mental health outcomes in the country. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, India lost more lives to suicide than coronavirus in 2020.
Some of the harmful effects of stigma can include:
- Reluctance to seek help or treatment
- Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others
- Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing
- Bullying, physical violence or harassment
- Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental illness treatment
- The belief that you’ll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation
Steps to cope with stigma
Here are some ways you can deal with stigma:
- Get treatment. You may be reluctant to admit you need treatment. Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Treatment can provide relief by identifying what’s wrong and reducing symptoms that interfere with your work and personal life.
- Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Stigma doesn’t just come from others. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal weakness or that you should be able to control it without help. Seeking counseling, educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others who have mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-judgment.
- Don’t isolate yourself. If you have a mental illness, you may be reluctant to tell anyone about it. Your family, friends, clergy or members of your community can offer you support if they know about your mental illness. Reach out to people you trust for the compassion, support and understanding you need.
- Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” say “I have schizophrenia.”
- Join a support group. Some local and national groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), offer local programs and internet resources that help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their families and the general public. Some state and federal agencies and programs, such as those that focus on vocational rehabilitation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), offer support for people with mental illness.
- Get help at school. If you or your child has a mental illness that affects learning, find out what plans and programs might help. Discrimination against students because of a mental illness is against the law, and educators at primary, secondary and college levels are required to accommodate students as best they can. Talk to teachers, professors or administrators about the best approach and resources. If a teacher doesn’t know about a student’s disability, it can lead to discrimination, barriers to learning and poor grades.
- Speak out against stigma. Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters to the editor or on the internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness.
Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.
Why does stigma exist?
Stigma arose out of lack of understanding and fear. Mental illness has been misinterpreted for a major part of history. From being seen as a possession by the devil to being considered a punishment by God, treatment had been barbaric and inhuman. Although we have advanced a lot in terms of knowledge and treatment, the stigma has persisted.
Stigma is perpetuated by the misrepresentation of people with mental illnesses in mass media. They are often portrayed as violent and dangerous in movies. While research has shown that people with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Such misleading representations lead to misconceptions and discrimination.
What does Stigma look like?
Here are some examples of stigma:
- labelling a person with mental illness as ‘psychotic’ or ‘crazy’
- mocking someone for seeking help
- the misconception that people with mental illnesses are violent or dangerous
- media portrayal of people with mental illness as evil
- asking people with mental illness to just “get over it” or “try harder.”
How does stigma impact people with mental illness?
People with mental illness face serious and devastating consequences of stigma. They may be invalidated, treated differently or made to feel worthless. People often internalise this social stigma and start doubting themselves.
They may feel worthless or ashamed and choose not to seek treatment or turn to alcohol and drug abuse. This may form the belief that they are incapable of achieving their goals, leading to poorer treatment outcomes. A study conducted on 222 disability pensioners with mental illness showed that an increase in self-stigma predicted poorer recovery.
They may be excluded from social groups, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination, bullying and harassment. The fear of being stigmatised reduces the chances of people seeking help. Most mental illnesses tend to worsen without treatment. This may make it harder for them to recover.
How to deal with Stigma?
Dealing with stigma can sometimes feel more painful than the illness itself. Regardless, it is essential to focus on yourself and your mental health. Here are a few ways you can deal with stigma:
Don’t avoid seeking treatment
It takes courage to ask for help, but it is worth the effort. Don’t let the fear of being stigmatised or labelled stop you from seeking treatment. This will not only help you with your illness but will also help you deal with the stigma.
People who hold inaccurate stereotypes and discriminate against people with mental illness have little knowledge or experience of it. It is natural to start internalising the things we hear and experience often. But do not let other people’s ignorance govern the way you treat yourself. Be kind to yourself and remember that mental illness isn’t a weakness or something you can get rid of if you just “tried harder”. Seeking help is crucial.
Bust myths with facts
Stigma arises out of a lack of knowledge and understanding. Learn about mental health and also educate others. Keep some facts and statistics handy in case you hear some inaccurate stereotypes or false information.
Remember you are not your illness
Someone suffering from malaria does not become malaria. Do not define yourself by your illness; you are more than that. You can change the way you speak about it. For example, instead of saying “I’m bipolar”, you can say “I have bipolar disorder”. This will remind you and others that you are separate from your illness.
Connect with others
Many people might want to isolate themselves out of the fear of being judged. Reach out to someone you can trust to support you. It may also be helpful to join a support group. Interacting with people in a similar situation as yours can help you realise that you are not alone. You will also be able to learn novel ways to deal with your problems from others’ experiences.