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Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness

Updated on October 1, 2016
Kathleen Odenthal profile image

Kathleen is a 29 year old mom who struggled with anorexia for decades. She is now in recovery & hopes to educate others about this disease.

End Mental Health Stigma

Harmful Effects of Mental Health Stigma

Coping with a mental illness is extremely difficult, mostly due to the stigma that surrounds these types of illnesses. Stigma comes in two forms, obvious or direct stigma, and subtle stigma.

An example of obvious stigma is when someone makes a nasty remark about your mental illness, completely unprovoked. An example of subtle stigma is when a person assumes that you are unstable, violent or dangerous because you have a mental health condition.

Either type of stigma can have harmful affects, including:

  • Resistance to treatment
  • Isolation
  • Negative self-esteem
  • Refusal to ask for help
  • Perpetuation of the illness

A recent study found that people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness would prefer to tell their employers that they have committed a petty crime and served time in jail rather than admit that they received treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

Do you see a problem here?

The negative stigma associated with mental health is a growing problem, but if we can teach our children to fight this stigma, we can raise a generation that po

Mental Health Statistics

A study by the CDC analyzing the attitudes of adults toward mental illness found that:

  • 78% of adults with mental health symptoms believed that treatment can help people with mental illnesses lead normal lives
  • 89% of adults without any symptoms of mental illness believed that treatment can help people with mental illness lead normal lives
  • 57% of adults without mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness
  • Only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness

These statistics show that education is desperately needed by the public regarding ways to support those with mental illness. It also shows that the majority of people believe treatment can benefit mentally ill people, and that we need to find a way to make treatment more available to those who need it.

  • 1 out of every 4 adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year
  • Major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for adults under the age of 50
  • Bipolar disorder affects an estimated 5% of the adult population in the United States
  • 75 million adults in the U.S. report suffering from a mental illness every year


With 25% of the population reporting symptoms of a mental illness every year, why is there still a stigma surrounding mental health? Odds are, we all know someone who struggles with a mental illness - probably numerous people. They could be our brothers, our mothers, our friends and our colleagues.

They could be us.

The time has come to realize that mental illness is no different than any other illness - cancer, arthritis, diabetes, asthma - it is a sickness that can be treated. More importantly, we need to stop looking at those who suffer from mental illnesses as 'mentally ill people'. Instead, let us look at them as 'people, who happen to suffer from a mental illness'.

Mental Health Survey

Do you know someone who suffers from a mental illness?

See results

About the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

The stigma our society creates surrounding mental illness only perpetuates the problem. By out-casting those who need help, we are decreasing the chances that these individuals will seek treatment. Prejudice leads to discrimination and discrimination leads to isolation and mistrust. When it comes to mental health stigma, we are both the problem, and the solution.

Stigmas surrounding mental illness are widely endorsed by the general public. Studies suggest that the majority of citizens in the U.S., as well as many Western European countries have stigmatizing attitudes when it comes to people with mental illness.

Studies that analyzed film and print media have identified three common misconceptions regarding those who suffer from a mental illness:

  • people with mental illness are homicidal maniacs who need to be feared
  • they have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marveled
  • they are responsible for their illness because they have weak character

In today's society, people diagnosed with a mental illness feel like they need to hide in the shadows out of fear of stigma and discrimination. In fact, although 25% of Americans live with a mental illness, less than half of people with a serious mental illness choose to seek proper treatment.

Elyn Saks - USC Law Professor and Functioning Schizophrenic

Elyn Sak's triumphant story about living with schizophrenia is a powerful depiction of how far someone with a mental illness can come.

People Defying the Stigma of Mental Health

There are many people in today's society defying the stigma of mental health. From those with severe depression to those suffering from schizophrenia, some of the most accomplished people in the United States today are dealing with a mental illness every day. These people are helping to end the stigma that surrounds mental health.

Elyn Saks is an Associate Dean and Professor of of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Gould Law School - she also suffers from severe schizophrenia. Saks has written an award winning novel about her battle with schizophrenia and travels all over the world in promotion of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Kay Redfield Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an Honorary Professor of English at the University of St Andrews. Published author and active psychiatrist, Jamison suffers from bi-polar disorder. She has been recognized as one of the "Best Doctors in the United States" and was chosen by Time as a "Hero of Medicine."

United States history is filled with individuals who had mental illnesses and made great accomplishments during their lifetime. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, Ernest Hemingway was mentally ill, Winston Churchill struggled with bi-polar disorder, as did Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Mental Health Advocacy website lists scores of successful actors, artists, musicians, poets, writers, sports figures, entrepreneurs, and business leaders with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

Number of Patients Treated for Serious Mental Illness Annually

How to End the Stigma of Mental Health

Methods for tackling the public stigma that surrounds mental health can be grouped into three approaches: protest, education, and contact. The most aggressive approach, protest, attempts to reduce negative stigma associated with mental illnesses, however it fails to promote a positive attitude towards mental health supported by concrete facts.

Educating the public, on the other hand, provides information that allows people to understand mental health and helps those without mental illnesses bash their false beliefs surrounding mental health.

Contact is the most effective way to end the stigma of mental health. Through contact with people who suffer from mental illnesses, stigma diminishes as people identify commonalities with the other person, and sees the way that they interact within society. Research has shown an inverse relationship between having contact with a person with mental illness and endorsing psychiatric stigma.

© 2014 Kathleen Odenthal Romano

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    • Carola Finch profile image

      Carola Finch 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Well done. I know this subject all too well with a loved one, who I don't identify because of stigma.

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile image
      Author

      Kathleen Odenthal Romano 2 years ago from Bayonne, New Jersey

      It seems most people on HP agree with my mentality on the subject, yet the feedback I receive on social media is often different. I guess we are an educated bunch here, and sometimes you need to repeat yourself many times before the ignorant choose to see the truth unfortunately.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      Sending this around again--lest we forget

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile image
      Author

      Kathleen Odenthal Romano 2 years ago from Bayonne, New Jersey

      Thank you for your kind words, I am overwhelmed by the support for this article, yet disheartened that the stigma still persists.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 2 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      I'm bookmarking this very well-written and much needed article on mental illness and sending it to friends and family. Also sharing on HP, Twitter and more. I've recommended this hub for 'Editors Choice." A very big thanks to you!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this well researched article. Mental illness has such a bad press - it needs to be better understood and that would happen if the media, for one, was balanced in its approach. Sensationalist headlines don't help.

      It would also be a good thing if doctors and hospitals offered more professional help for those who need it. Perhaps more training and funding is called for.

      I'd like people to realise that mental illness can be cured and is not something that lasts a whole lifetime.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I think that it is interesting that people who have mental health symptoms do not perceive others as being caring and sympathetic toward people with mental illness. That is one of the hallmarks of mental illness, a distorted view of reality. I say this from experience. I have mental illness, and I have family members with mental illness. I have never been openly criticized, attacked, or demeaned because of my illness, however, I have been afraid that others would, therefore, I do not tell everyone about my illness. I do not want to go there. I only tell those people who I know accept and love me for who I am, and that I already know will treat me kindly.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 3 years ago from Lancashire, England

      It's always helpful to publicize how people experiencing mental health problems can succeed in life and make it to the top of their chosen occupation. And you're correct to highlight how contact with those so labelled is one of the most effective ways of countering stigma.

      The value of 'education' is dependent upon the content of such progams; thus, 'teaching' people the biological psychiatry nonsense that mental illnesses are the products of genetic brain diseases and biochemical imbalances actually increases stigma.

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile image
      Author

      Kathleen Odenthal Romano 3 years ago from Bayonne, New Jersey

      Schizophrenics can be highly functional and have contributed so much to our society. We have spent too much time attacking people with mental illnesses while we should be educating people ABOUT mental illnesses.

    • chuckd7138 profile image

      Charles Dawson 3 years ago from Virginia Beach, VA

      My first wife always acted like mental illnesses were contagious. Despite that being disturbing on multiple levels, it was more hurtful to me because my father was a schizophrenic and my mother suffers a form of depression. Some speculate that I have a form of post-traumatic stress due to the many years of my first step-father's unrelenting verbal and physical abuse.

      Thank you for sharing your observations and thoughts on this subject. We definitely need more awareness, especially for schizophrenia, which is sorely misunderstood and therefore perceived incorrectly.

      Voted up and shared.

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile image
      Author

      Kathleen Odenthal Romano 3 years ago from Bayonne, New Jersey

      Thank you Audrey!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      What an excellent article!

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