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Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

Common misconceptions about mental illness/mental health Stigma 

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a term used to describe mental health conditions that impact mood, thoughts, and behaviors. These disorders can interfere with a person’s ability to function to their full potential on a daily basis or how they relate to others. There are many reasons why someone may develop a mental illness. Some can come from genetics, some come from things such as childhood trauma, or overwhelming stress at school, work, or home. Mental illness can develop from violence, different environmental factors, or many other reasons.

Mental health conditions are health problems and no different than physical illness. If you wouldn’t deprive yourself of treatment for your physical health, then you shouldn’t deprive yourself of treatment for your mental health. It is an illness in the brain. If you experienced high blood pressure, would you not seek treatment? If you experienced symptoms of diabetes, would you not seek treatment? If you experienced heart issues, would you not seek treatment? Things such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc should be treated no different and if you experience symptoms, seek treatment.

It is said that one in four US Adults (26%) have been diagnosed with a mental illness. One in twenty have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. These numbers do not take into account those who have not sought help and been given a diagnosis but are still struggling with mental illness. Suicide can come as a result of untreated mental illness and every 40 seconds someone takes their own life. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34.

Common Misconceptions

Inaccurate or misleading media representations of mental illness can lead to a lack of understanding and fear when it comes to mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate. Anyone can suffer from a mental illness. Individuals who struggle with mental illness can come from all backgrounds, ethnicities, careers, and socioeconomic status. Mental illness, like physical illness, can affect anyone.

Mental illness is not a character flaw. Telling someone to “calm down,” “move on,” “get over it,” “stop worrying about it,” “just don’t think about it,” are not helpful statements because if it was that easy to do, people would. It is also not helpful to label yourself or another person as a disorder. Your disorder is just something you have. Instead of saying “I am bipolar or I’m a schizophrenic,” say “I have bipolar disorder or I have depression.”
Some people have been told their mental illness is just a phase or something they can control. Some people have also been told they aren’t trying hard enough to get over whatever their symptoms are that are affecting their day to day life. This is simply not true.

The stigma surrounding mental illness

Mental health stigma is viewing yourself/others in a negative light or being viewed by others in a negative light. Stigma and discrimination can worsen someone’s mental health problems, and can delay someone’s willingness to seek help. 

Stigma and judgments about mental illness usually come from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Stigma can cause people to feel ashamed for something that is outside of their control. Mental health problems are not something that people choose to have or not have, therefore it is outside of their control. Anyone can develop a mental health condition. It takes strength to recognize and accept help for mental health. Fear and misunderstanding of mental illness can lead to judgments against people with mental illness, therefore adding to the stigma. 

Nearly 50% of people suffering from a mental health condition do not seek treatment and on average, it takes a person 11 years to seek help after first experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder. Many do not even realize they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder although it is negatively impacting their life and some suffer in silence because of the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking treatment. So many people come into therapy stating “I should have done this a long time ago.” Many factors cause a person to delay seeking treatment and stigma is one of them. 

The stigma surrounding mental health has been decreasing over the years, however 56% of Americans say they would feel uncomfortable telling their friends or family if they were suffering from a mental illness. Some people have this fear due to thinking it will be viewed as a sign of weakness, that they just need to be stronger, or that they will negatively be judged for their struggles. Oftentimes, people may fear they will have issues at work or not be able to advance in their career if they share they are having a mental health struggle. This continues because people suffer in silence, don’t talk about their struggles, and in turn, further keeps the stigma alive. 

According to the APA (American Psychological Association), more than one third of Americans feel uncomfortable interacting with someone that has a mental illness. This can be attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health, the unknown about their condition and those individuals. 

Stigma can also come from views we have of ourselves and thinking that we can handle it all on our own. People need people. We can’t do everything in this life alone. Utilize your support network or seek out a counselor to talk to a non biased person. Normalizing this will help break the stigma surrounding mental health.

Some of the harmful effects of stigma surrounding mental illness include lower self esteem, difficulty in relationships, harassment from others, people feeling hopeless that their symptoms will improve, problems at work, isolating from their social circle, lack of understanding from friends and family, reluctance to seek help or reduce the likelihood that someone will stay in treatment once they start and even health insurance companies that don’t adequately cover mental illness treatment

What can you do to help reduce the stigma

Educate yourself about mental illness as well as substance use disorders. Educate yourself on common symptoms to help recognize the signs in your loved ones and help encourage them to seek treatment early before symptoms get too severe. Educating yourself will also help you recognize symptoms in yourself. 

It is important to talk openly about mental illness. Talk to others about what it is like to have a certain disorder, talk to others about the emotions you may be experiencing due to a mental health condition or situationally based emotions. 

When people understand that it is an illness, it is sometimes treated differently. Recognize the equality between a physical illness and a mental illness. Remember you wouldn’t make fun of someone with cancer or diabetes or tell them to “get over it” so doing that with a mental illness is not appropriate. 

Be aware of your own biases, attitudes, and behaviors. Be mindful of your own judgmental thinking that may have been reinforced by your upbringing and society. Be careful of your language choices as well. Choose your words wisely. Help reduce stigma by being careful of the language you use. Don’t say things like “nuts, crazy, or insane” when describing others. 

Help educate others. Challenge stereotypes, pass on positive attitudes and facts about mental health. 

A person’s mental illness does not define them. It is only a part of them so focus on the bigger picture, the person as a whole. 

Don’t be afraid to talk openly about seeking therapy or psychiatric services. Reach out to others you trust for compassion, support, and understanding. Be supportive of others. Treat everyone with respect and dignity and offer support and encouragement to all. 

Be sure to include everyone. It is against the law to deny jobs or services to anyone because of a mental health condition.

What to do going forward

Everyone needs to take care of their mental health and not just individuals with a mental health condition.

Half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14 therefore it is important to break the stigma so that teens and adolescents get the help they need and don’t shy away from talking about what they are going through and suffer in silence into adulthood. 

Seeking counseling, educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others can help you gain confidence, overcome self doubt, and reduce symptoms that interfere in day to day life. 

Normalize talking about emotions. Natural emotions such as sadness, anger, happiness, or stress. We all have them. These are all things we all experience and will come and go and we should experience them when appropriate. If any mental health struggle is impacting your day to day functioning, ability to think, process information, complete your normal tasks, etc normalize the need to seek help and reach out. Don’t suffer in silence. 

It is not only a mental health professionals job to break the stigma. It takes normalizing struggles, because we all have them in some capacity, talking about mental health with others, and seeking treatment. If we acknowledge our mental health struggles, and normalize seeking help, we can break the stigma and overall have a happier/healthier society.


  • Mental health foundation 
  • Mayo Clinic 
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
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